Coronavirus: Folding@Home Volunteers Merge Home PCs For Fastest Supercomputer

A group of volunteers have joined together to create the world’s fastest supercomputer, in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.

The distributed computing approach is called Folding@Home, where participants are ‘folding proteins’ on their home PCs.

By loaning the computing power of their home PCs in their spare time, the volunteers have reportedly managed to create the world’s fastest supercomputer.

Credit: ORNL

Home PCs

According to the Guardian newspaper, on 25 March the organisation that runs the distributed computing effort (Folding@Home) announced that the combined power of its distributed computing network broke 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 operations per second (one “exaflop”).

That alone made the Folding@Home network six times more powerful than the current world’s fastest traditional supercomputer, the IBM Summit, which is used for scientific research at the US’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

But on Monday the organisation revealed it had more than doubled that, hitting a new record of 2.4 exaflops, faster than the top 500 traditional supercomputers combined, thanks to almost 1 million new members of the network.

The way it works is that volunteers run a simple piece of software on their home computer, which then downloads and performs small tasks to help determine the physical structure of proteins.

Simulating the dynamics of the proteins that make up Sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) will allow researchers to discover new prospects for drugs to tackle the disease.

It is already paying off. One effort has been focusing on the “spike” protein that Sars-CoV-2 uses to invade human cells, Greg Bowman, one of the researchers coordinating the effort, was quoted by the Guardian as saying.

Opening motion

“It is well established that the spike must undergo a dramatic opening motion to reveal the interface that ultimately binds a human cell,” Bowman reportedly said. “Understanding how the spike opens up … could be extremely useful. Every step along the way could potentially be targeted with therapeutics.”

“Unfortunately, there is no way to watch a spike undergo this transition, at least with existing experimental techniques,” he reportedly added. “Data on what the open state even looks like is also limited.”

Apparently, after just a few weeks of project time, the team was able to create a simulation that showed the first stage of the “mouth” opening up.

Tech Offers

Big names in the tech industry are already doing their best to help the world in the fight against the pandemic.

IBM for example has already announced that it is donating its supercomputing resources to help in the fight against the pandemic.

And earlier this week, Big Blue said it had teamed up with the Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project to combat an unexpected secondary effect of the coronavirus pandemic – a shortage of programmers skilled in the 60-year-old COBOL programming language.

Governments worldwide are processing unprecedented numbers of unemployment benefit claims, and in the US this has put pressure on legacy mainframe systems that use COBOL.

Quiz: Do you know all about IBM, the founder of the IT industry?

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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