Lab Behind the Record-Setting GPU ‘Cloud Burst’ Joins Folding@home’s COVID-19 Effort

By Staff report

May 20, 2020

Last November, the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC) set out to break some records with a moonshot project: over a couple of hours, they bought time on as many cloud GPUS as they could – 51,000 – to crunch simulations, achieving a “cloud burst” with that aggregated 170 peak single-precision petaflops. Now, researchers at WIPAC are pitching in resources toward another moonshot project: defeating COVID-19.

Normally, WIPAC is about as removed from human civilization as a science project can be. Based in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, WIPAC researchers crunch data from the Antarctica-based IceCube Neutrino Observatory, which uses thousands of sensors buried in the ice to detect signals from elusive neutrino particles. 

While the observatory is still collecting data, the WIPAC-based computing resources are, for the moment, being partially redirected to crowdsourced computing project Folding@home. Since late February, Folding@home has thrown much of its weight behind folding COVID-19’s viral proteins, providing researchers with detailed information on the various forms that the proteins can take. Over four million CPUs and half a million GPUs have volunteered their idle time to Folding@home’s research projects over the last 50 days.

That number has grown thanks to WIPAC, which has devoted a portion of its 5,000 CPU-based systems and 300 GPU-equipped systems to Folding@home. “It just feels right to make the effort to share computing resources from fields as far removed from virology as neutrino astrophysics,” says Kael Hanson, WIPAC’s director. “We’re pleased to aid in research that could ultimately lead everyone impacted by the current COVID-19 situation out of the crisis.”

WIPAC’s resources are coordinated through the HTCondor software suite, which manages allocation of the center’s resources to various computing tasks. HTCondor, which was developed by the university’s Center for High Throughput Computing (CHTC), was also used for the GPU cloud burst experiment.

“The long partnership between WIPAC and CHTC is founded on a commitment to share resources and knowledge,” says Miron Livny, director of the CHTC. “It is gratifying to see this partnership contributing to the computing challenge of protein folding of SARS-CoV-2.”

WIPAC says that the protein-folding simulations are receiving high priority and are being executed alongside the ongoing IceCube workload. 

“These are unprecedented times, and I feel like we should do what we can to help other researchers,” said Benedikt Riedel, global computing coordinator for IceCube and computing manager at WIPAC. “So far it is going well, and I am hoping that we can continue to donate even after this ends.”

To join WIPAC in running Folding@home, follow this link, install the software, and when selecting how to target your computational contribution, choose “Any Disease.”

Header image: the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. Image courtesy of IceCube.

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