Microsoft’s undersea data centre drives hunt for Covid-19 vaccine


Not just above the Earth, efforts are underway beneath the sea to search for a Covid-19 vaccine as an experimental Microsoft data centre in Scotlands Orkney Islands is processing workloads for a global, distributed computing project to understand the viral proteins that cause the disease and design therapeutics to stop them.

Distributed computing projects harness otherwise idle computer processing power to perform specific tasks for big science research. Ongoing projects include efforts to understand climate change, map cancer markers and fight infectious disease.

The Folding@home distributed computing project was launched in October 2000 to simulate protein dynamics.

How proteins – chains of amino acids – fold into structures determines their function and the Folding@home simulations can lead to breakthroughs such as identifying sites on a viral protein that a therapeutic drug could bind to.

“Folding@home was one of the first distributed computing groups to start working on Covid-related problems and immediately came out with a bunch of workloads that were geared toward finding antibodies and figuring out ways they could create immunizations,” said Spencer Fowers, a principal member of technical staff for Microsoft’s special projects research group.

When Folding@home announced the Covid-19 related research effort, Fowers jumped on the opportunity and deployed the software across the servers on the Northern Isles.

In addition, Fowers worked with colleagues at Microsoft to enable Microsoft employees currently working from home to deploy the project on their office computers, and worked with the Folding@home community to improve the ability to install the software remotely.

These efforts are in addition to the contributions Microsoft is making to Folding@home via the AI for Health initiative, which recently granted Azure computing resources to help Folding@home run simulations of COVID-19 proteins, the company said in a statement on Tuesday.

Fowers is the technical lead for Project Natick, a years-long research effort to investigate the feasibility of manufacturing and operating environmentally sustainable, prepacked data centre units.

The project’s Northern Isles data centre, which is about the size of a shipping container, has been humming away 117 feet under the sea in Scotland since June 2018.

Unlike commercial Microsoft datacenters that run the full Azure infrastructure, including artificial intelligence frameworks tailored to meet specific needs, Project Natick is a research data centre and its servers are generic, similar to several thousand high-end personal computers.

“This COVID-19 pandemic is an example of why the distributed computing platform is still relevant today,” said Fowers, explaining that “it makes it quick for adoption, and it gives people the opportunity to feel like they are contributing.”



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