Petaflops of goodness

Did you know that you too can help invent a cure for coronavirus even without a PhD in medicine? And the process itself, according to big science researchers, has a lot in common with... a football match! However, in order to make scientific discoveries, we need a lot of computing power. And where is there more of it than in computers?

Let us first go back 20 years to a time when no one had yet any inkling of the coronavirus pandemic to come. As Anton Thynell of Stanford University told me, a team of researchers has been working for over two decades on Folding@home, a distributed computing project that harnesses the power of computers to conduct scientific work on creating cures for serious medical conditions such as cancers (breast and kidney cancer, among others), viral diseases (hepatitis, Zika virus), and neurological conditions (e.g., Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases).

This year, the team decided on an obvious research goal – to analyze the dynamics of the structures of the SARS-CoV-2 virus protein. As a result, the platform has seen a strong growth in popularity, and many individuals and companies have decided to help the researchers develop the necessary vaccine. Folding@home includes several CPU- and GPU-based simulations aiming to analyze the dynamics and properties of COVID‑19 proteins. If all goes well, Folding@home will provide insight into how drugs can affect the virus, leading to new treatment options.

What does it look like in practice? This is how Anton Thynell describes the work of the scientists:

We study proteins the way one observes a football match. We look at how the proteins look at the start of the game, what the starting position of each ‘player’ is and how they behave. Our simulations show the protein’s folding and unfolding.

Tech Heroes in action!

To make this possible, computing power from personal computers and servers is flowing in from all over the world. Folding@home is breaking performance records – the total performance of the project exceeds the aggregated computing power of the 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world: according to the latest statistics, the project has reached a computing power of about 2.4 exaflops (i.e., it can perform about 2,400,000,000,000,000,000 floating point operations per second).

Polish companies have also become actively involved in the initiative, acting as part of the Poland vs. Covid-19 campaign and the BohaTECH Challenge.

We had been wondering for a long time how we can help. Clothing companies were sewing masks, and other companies were providing lunches for medics; we found out about the Folding@home action, initiated in Poland by the iCEA agency. As an IT company we have considerable computing power, so we decided to join forces in supporting this project.
Dominika Bucholc
from Hicron, who launched the Power for Tech Heroes initiative, which helps companies support Folding@home and the Poland vs. COVID-19 initiative.

The idea was born quite spontaneously.

Our Head of SEO came across information about the Folding@home project on the web and suggested that we joined. Evolving this into an initiative for the rest of the industry was a natural step. We wanted to help and get involved in the project. We donated the computing power of the first 20 dedicated units and started inviting other companies to join the group we created – Poland vs. COVID-19. From the outset, it was important for us to involve as many businesses as possible and together show that technology can be a force for the good of science.
Jacek Dziura
Marketing Director at iCEA Group

A crucial factor in the idea of distributed computing, on which the program is based, is the number of computing units, which means that every computer connected to the network matters. Hicron took the initiative seriously and donated 6 servers, corresponding in power to 72 CPUs, and became an official co-organizer of Poland vs. COVID-19.

A network for doing good

iCEA is still striving to mobilize yet more companies to participate in the project. At this point we already have about 220 computing units, but Hicron and other involved organizations continue to encourage other companies to make computing power available for great science. Sometimes simple steps are enough to provide tangible support for a program with such an important and historic mission.

We did not limit the available power on the servers, so we can declare that these servers are 100% dedicated to the project. Therefore, we are currently responsible for 1.44% of all calculations performed as part of the Poland vs. COVID-19 project. Our goal is to make at least 10 servers available to the initiative, which we can afford as we have our own data center.
Andrzej Gontarz
Andrzej Gontarz
IT Manager at Hicron

How much more computing power is needed depends on the current pace of work on potential treatments for the COVID-19 disease.

Put your computer to work

It is worth noting that not only IT companies can take part in the program; the list of participants also includes online shops and businesses from various industries. Any company or individual can share some power, because you can still work or surf the Internet on a computer dedicated to Folding@home. You can decide on the percentage of computing power donated to Folding@home by modifying the settings in the software (the Folding Power Slider bar). You can choose from the following levels: Light (~40% CPU power), Medium (~70% CPU power), and Full (~100% CPU power). You can also set the calculations to be performed only when no work is being done on the computer (“Only when idle” mode), e.g., at night or during a break, adds Gontarz.

It is also important to implement the solution in accordance with the standards and processes of your company, bearing in mind its security protocols. Folding@home only requires Internet access, so there is no need for the donated servers to have even any access to the company’s internal network, which means there is no risk of losing or compromising your data. You can help safely and without any problems.

A tiny particle, measuring just 90-140 nm, has irrevocably changed the world as we know it. The pandemic has affected everyone, but it has also triggered an unprecedented avalanche of good in the form of social initiatives and increased efforts of researchers. The entire scientific world is working on a vaccine – it takes enormous computing power to defeat a tiny virus, so every single flops counts. Do you have that power?

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