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Tech giants aim supercomputers, clouds at finding a COVID-19 cure

The new COVID-19 HPC consortium comprised of tech giants, national labs and academia are using supercomputers and clouds to speed research to identify a cure.

Hoping to speed research that results in a COVID-19 cure, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has launched a consortium of high tech, academic and government agencies that will work in concert on a number of projects coordinated by IBM and the Department of Energy.

The technology heart of these projects will be over a dozen or more supercomputers, most notably the IBM Summit system housed in Oak Ridge National Laboratory. IBM had already been working with the Lab's researchers along with the DOE and the University of Tennessee (UT) to narrow down from 8,000 to 77 the number of compounds that are likely to bind to what is called the main "spike" protein of the coronavirus.

"Those 77 compounds are now being investigated with classical chemistry and biology techniques are being examined by people at Oak Ridge and University of Tennessee," said Dave Turek, vice president of HPC and cognitive systems at IBM. "This is the power of accelerating discovery through computation."

But the newly formed COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium (HPC), which includes 14 members, will largely build on the work IBM, Oak Ridge and UT had done. Other tech companies in the group include AWS, Google Cloud and Microsoft.

"What we are bringing together is a very broad public-private partnership to provide COVID-19 researchers from around the world with access to the world's most powerful high-performance supercomputer resources that can significantly advance the pace of scientific discovery in the fight to stop the virus," said Paul Dabbar, undersecretary for science at DOE, in a media briefing on Tuesday.

Dabbar added that all researchers are invited to submit COVID-19 research proposals to the consortium via the online portal, which will then be reviewed and matched with computing resources from all the participating public and private partners.

The consortium members working with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the DOE will have access to 16 systems with 330 petaflops, 775,000 CPU cores and 34,000 GPUs. IBM and the national labs will offer their computing resources for free.

Tech companies aim to lower COVID-19 test costs

Earlier this week, AWS unveiled a new diagnostic development unit that will work with 35 business partners to create a less expensive test for the COVID-19 virus. The company said it will pour $20 million for those customers working on diagnostic tools. The intent of the effort, called the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative, is to strengthen collaboration among customers that will be funded with AWS "in-kind" credits and technical support.

AWS officials added that the program will not support administrative workloads in terms of running everyday IT operations, but added the program is open to all medical researchers and privately held companies that also will have access to AWS research workloads and diagnostic development tools.

"We're proud to support this critical work and stand ready with the compute power of AWS to help accelerate research and development efforts," said Teresa Carlson, vice president of worldwide public sector at AWS, in a prepared statement. "Working together, government, business and academic leaders can utilize the power of the cloud to advance the pace of scientific discovery and innovation and help combat the COVID-19 virus."

AWS has something of an ulterior motive in launching the program as Amazon needs significantly more COVID-19 tests for its workforce and mammoth warehouses to keep the e-commerce part of the business up and running.

The AWS initiative comes on the heels of programs from Google Cloud and Microsoft. Like IBM, Microsoft launched a program that offers free high-performance computing resources to other vendors and organizations working to develop test kits and vaccines for COVID-19. The company's AI for Health program makes grants available that ensures access to the company's Azure cloud along with high-performance computers.

Google Cloud has established a 24-hour incident response team that will stay in constant contact with the World Health Organization, and Google's senior leadership team in order to make vital decisions about its offices spread around the world.

Private-public alliance key to finding a COVID-19 cure

Some analysts and consultants are encouraged by the newly formed consortium, along with the AWS initiative, saying it is a much-needed step in the right direction.

IBM and the government, which have 20 computing data centers ... have open access to look for vaccines and other cures through simulation and analysis… maybe technology gives us all a better chance to get through this.
Frank DzubeckPresident, Communications Network Architects

"IBM and the government, which have 20 computing data centers, are now set up to have open access to look for vaccines and other cures through simulation and analysis," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, consultants in Washington, D.C. "And along with the AWS announcement addressing another important issue -- inexpensive and quick testing -- maybe technology gives us all a better chance to get through this."

The goal of the IBM-DOE led consortium is to pool the supercomputing capacity under all 14 of the partners in the consortium and offer "extraordinary supercomputing power" to scientists, medical researchers and a number of government agencies, said Dario Gil, director of IBM Research.

"So, now we have to work with the consortium partners to evaluate proposals from researchers around the world for the projects that could have the most immediate impact," Gil said.

Among the 14 members of the COVID-19 HPC Consortium are academic institutions MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; national laboratories that include the Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (which houses IBM's Sierra supercomputer, the second fastest computer in the world), Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories; and NASA and the National Science Foundation, among federal agencies.

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