May 29, 2024


Sapiens Digital

In Fight Against Coronavirus, Folding@Home Reaches Exascale Computing

(Peter Zelei Images / Getty)

If you’re a PC user who donated to [email protected] —a project that borrows your spare processing power to research a cure for the coronavirus— then you have something to be proud of:  You’ve just helped create an “exascale” system, which has more computing power than the top 100 supercomputers combined. 

On Wednesday, [email protected] reported crossing the exascale threshold. “That’s over a 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 operations per second,” the project tweeted

Indeed, [email protected] is now capable of calculating 1,554 petaflops, making it about 10 times more powerful than Summit, the world’s fastest supercomputer. 

Folding@Home's current stats on active CPUs, GPUs

The feat is pretty remarkable, given that the US government has been spending over a billion dollars to construct three new exascale supercomputers, which will only start going online in 2021. [email protected], on the other hand, has been taking the crowdsourcing route; for years now, the project has been borrowing people’s unused computing power to simulate diseases in order to help the medical community find treatments for them. 

Previously, the project had about 30,000 active volunteers. But starting last month, the project began devoting resources to study the coronavirus for vulnerabilities with the hopes of developing a real-life cure or vaccine. Since then, the project has seen a surge in volunteers as companies including Nvidia call on the public to donate their spare computing power to the cause. 

Last week, the project’s director, Greg Bowman, said [email protected] had 400,000 volunteers, making it capable of calculating 474 petaflops. But on Thursday, he told PCMag, the figure jumped to 700,000, which helped it break the exascale barrier. 

“We’ve also deployed a number of improvements to our server-side infrastructure,” Bowman said in an email, while adding: “Most of the compute resources are going to coronavirus.” 

[email protected] has been trying to develop a treatment for the pandemic by simulating how the coronavirus’s protein structure folds and unfolds at a microscopic level. If pockets in the structure are found, then it’s possible a drug molecule can be slipped inside, preventing the illness from binding to human lung cells. 

Thanks to the increase in computing power, [email protected] can now simulate research more quickly than ever before. “I can now run a protein, come back in a week and already know what the next step is, this would take a month to a few months before,” Rafal Wiewiora, a researcher with the project, said during the Reddit AMA last week. 

To volunteer for the project, simply download and install the [email protected] app on your Mac or Windows or Linux-based PC. To contribute to the coronavirus research, click on “any disease” when choosing which illness you want to help fight.  

Other supercomputers, including Summit, have also been recruited into studying the coronavirus for treatments. However, the [email protected] team told the Reddit community last week that its own project excels at “larger scale, longer-term” research efforts whereas Summit is more adept at crunching calculations in a short period, like in a few hours. 

As a result, comparing [email protected] to a traditional supercomputer is more of an apples to oranges comparison. It’s important to note the project has access to someone’s spare computing power, which the volunteer can calibrate from a “light” to “medium to “full.” The fastest supercomputers, on the other hand, can leverage over a million computing cores at once.

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