In Big Win for COVID-19 Research, Neocortix Brings Arm Support to [email protected], [email protected]

By Oliver Peckham

July 28, 2020

Normally, Neocortix offers distributed cloud computing for its clients by way of PhonePaycheck, an app that pays users in exchange for the idle processing time on their phones. But when crowdsourced research computing stalwarts [email protected] and [email protected] rose to newfound prominence in their hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine, Neocortix saw a new application for its talents: bringing those services to hitherto-unsupported architectures. Now, Neocortix is dropping the big news: it has achieved, and is releasing, Arm 64-bit support for both [email protected] and [email protected]

[email protected] has been working on folding the proteins of the novel coronavirus since February using the idle computing resources of traditional CPU-based computers. Over those four months, the researchers (based at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis) have seen millions of systems join the program – a more than hundredfold increase compared to pre-COVID-19 numbers, comprising contributions from major organizations and socially motivated gamers alike. [email protected], similarly, engages volunteers in the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC) platform developed by the University of Washington’s Baker laboratory, pitting over a hundred thousand systems against SARS-CoV-2’s proteins.

The new Arm 64-bit support provided by Neocortix opens the doors for literal billions of devices to join the fight against COVID-19 through the two projects – mostly Android phones, but also Raspberry Pi devices and even Arm-based servers. Neocortix is even supporting the services through its Neocortix Scalable Compute Instances, with both projects now available to users. “As we head towards a world of a trillion connected devices, developer innovation is helping to tackle some of the world’s most complex challenges from the endpoint and edge to the cloud,” said Paul Williamson, vice president and general manager, Client Line of Business at Arm. “Arm’s collaboration with Neocortix means that Arm-based technology can contribute spare compute capacity to critical COVID-19 research and it’s incredible to see Arm’s global developer ecosystem come together to support this effort.”

“We saw an opportunity to leverage our Neocortix Cloud Services platform to help meet the distributed computing needs of the most pressing academic research workloads, at enormous scale,” said Lloyd Watts, founder and CEO of Neocortix. Watts attributes “essentially all of the core development work” on the Arm support to a sole engineer at Neocortix: Dmitry Moskalchuk, the company’s principal software architect. “It’s a conceptually straightforward step – oh, just compile it for this other platform!” Watts said in an interview with HPCwire. “However, it’s not at all a straightforward thing to do that. It takes some real expertise, and the fact that neither of those projects had done that prior to us coming along is at least a partial testimony to how difficult it is.” 

[email protected], in particular, posed a serious challenge for Neocortix. “Rosetta only took about three days,” Watts said, “but [email protected] took three months.” The primary reason: in the process of adding Arm support for [email protected], Neocortix also ended up upgrading its implementation of GROMACS, the molecular dynamics package on which the [email protected] researchers heavily lean – and of which they were still running a “many-years-old” version. The GROMACS upgrade benefited [email protected] to the tune of a 30 percent performance improvement across all platforms, not just Arm. 

The directors of the two crowdsourced computing programs, for their part, are happy to see non-traditional computing devices gain support. Greg Bowman, director of [email protected], said that the collaboration “provided the perfect opportunity to tap into [mobile devices] to accelerate [their] COVID-19 research”; David Baker, director of [email protected], said that his team was “super impressed” at the speed of the deployment and was “very excited to more quickly advance our COVID-19 diagnostic, therapeutic and vaccine efforts using these new resources.”

And, of course, for Neocortix, it’s a chance to show off.

“There’s a public service aspect to it,” Watts said, “but it’s also an important marketing thing for us to let the world know about our technology capabilities – and for our potential customers who are academic researchers to see that if we can help a project as big as this, we can help them, too.

Image courtesy of Neocortix.

Neocortix had already delivered over 900 real work units on [email protected] as of last week, and some projects have similarly delivered Arm-driven results on [email protected] using the new Arm64 port. As far as broader implementation goes, stay tuned for news in the near future. “We are now preparing to support [email protected] in their public release of the Arm version, and preparing for announcements and broad deployment,” Neocortix wrote.

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