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PC owners borg into the most powerful computer the world has ever known – all in the search for coronavirus cure

Move over, Summit. Distributed computing project hits 470 PFLOPS

A distributed computing project for disease research now has more data-crunching chops than the world's publicly known most-powerful supercomputer – IBM's Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

How so? Well, just like the lunatics stripping toilet paper from shelves the world over, at times of crisis it helps to feel that we are doing something – anything – and Folding@home, which borrows PC-owning donors' idle CPU and GPU cycles to simulate protein dynamics, has naturally been extended to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Towards the end of February, when the outbreak was gathering pace, the project, founded at Stanford University in 2000, put out a call to arms asking for interested individuals to donate their home rigs' resources in an effort to better understand the COVID-19 coronavirus and thus perhaps even help identify a cure.

The novel coronavirus infection starts in the lungs, where a "spike protein" binds to a receptor protein on the surface of lung cells. It is this "spike" – or the knobbly bits we all know and loathe – and how it shifts, folds and interacts with the ACE2 receptor that needs to be studied so that an effective therapeutic antibody can be developed.

"We can build computational models that accomplish this goal, but it takes a lot of computing power," wrote Folding@home boffin Ariana Brenner Clerkin. "This is where you come in! With many computers working towards the same goal, we aim to help develop a therapeutic remedy as quickly as possible."

Anyone can download the software, which runs in the background sipping unused cycles to help run its sims. Given the enormity of the situation, people have unsurprisingly been receptive. Folding@home's director, Dr Greg Bowman, told Twitter on Friday:

IBM's Summit super 'puter debuted at ORNL in 2018 boasting 200 peta-FLOPS – floating point operations a second, which in a layperson's terms translates as 200,000 trillion calculations solved per second. Big Blue has pledged Summit to the corona-cause too, alongside the White House-sanctioned COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium comprising 16 systems, totaling more than 330 peta-FLOPS, 775,000 CPU cores and 34,000 GPUs.

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330 is still some way off the heady heights of 470, though Folding@home has the advantage of borging hundreds of thousands of insane gamer rigs to help out, rather than being a single, standalone system.

Of course, standard caveats apply: Folding@home is a massively distributed network, with volunteer computers on the ends of broadband internet links waiting for work, whereas supercomputers are tightly integrated for fast parallel processing with applications feeding in work from local storage via specialist networking. Two different types of beast. What we're comparing here is the raw computational power available.

Summit's days at the top of the HPC pile are numbered, however, as the US Department of Energy's uber-system El Capitan, which has been commissioned to simulate America's nuclear weapon stockpiles, is tipped to be capable of two exa-FLOPS – two times 1018 floating point calculations per second – by 2023. But who knows how many PCs will be running Folding@home's software by then? Well, er, civilisation would have to make it through this unscathed, we admit.

In the meantime, if you fancy helping out with Folding@home's efforts, there's a disclaimer: "These calculations are enormous and every little bit helps! Each simulation you run is like buying a lottery ticket. The more tickets we buy, the better our chances of hitting the jackpot. Usually, your computer will never be idle, but we've had such an enthusiastic response to our COVID-19 work that you will see some intermittent downtime as we sprint to setup more simulations. Please be patient with us! There is a lot of valuable science to be done, and we're getting it running as quickly as we can."

Hey, you've got to be in it to win it, right? And that i9-9900K/RTX 2080 Ti combo isn't under much stress while you're working from home. I mean, you are working, aren't you? ®

Many thanks to all El Reg readers who pitched in and joined Folding Vultures: join the Folding@home team right here. There's also the Vulture Central 2.2 team, dating back to 2007 and still going strong, right here that you can join, too.

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