Dutch SI pitches in to distributed computing's fight against COVID-19

Like many businesses, Dutch system integrator BTO closed its doors to the public when lockdown rules, intended to stem the pandemic, came into effect. In the showroom, though, the powerful laptops that are its specialty were put to good use.

bto foldinghome

In the Dutch systems integration market BTO is something of a specialist, building high-end custom systems. Along with most shops, BTO closed its showroom during the crisis, but while doing so, figured out a way to contribute to the fight against the novel coronavirus.

BTO left the showroom computers on, to be put to good use by the distributed computing software Folding@Home, calculating possible protein shapes that can help determine a possible medicine to combat the virus.

The coronavirus has been met with a large uptake in use of distributed computing software, which was popular in the early years of the first decade of this century for such varied purposes as finding extra-terrestrial life, cures for diseases,  calculating prime numbers or breaking encryption. Folding@Home has been focused on targeting proteins related to diseases, Ebola amongst others.

During the pandemic, Folding@Home has turned its attention to the coronavirus, enlisting as many people and businesses as possible to contribute computing power to its efforts. For BTO, this meant its showroom computers, which are primarily laptops.

Whenever Intel introduces a new top-model processor, it's usually only a matter of time before BTO offers it in a portable system. Even though the company's bread and butter consists of more modest systems, the brand is probably best known for the boutique, powerful systems that gave the company its name.

While most of its business is conducted online – customers can specify their desired orders in great detail – the company does maintain a showroom at its offices and assembly line in IJsselstein, in the province of Utrecht. Here customers can examine the various types of chassis on order for the range of laptops on offer – at least, until March 15, when the Dutch government announced the "intelligent lockdown" that put shelter-at-home regulations into effect. That happened to be the day that Folding@Home issued an appeal for help in its fight against the coronavirus.

Distributed computing power for coronavirus analysis

"Downloading Folding@Home and helping us run simulations is the primary way to contribute. These calculations are enormous and every little bit helps!" said Folding@Home director Greg Bowman in a blog.

Powerful as the typical BTO laptop is, the systems running in the IJsselstein showroom will only make up a very small segment of the total Folding@Home compute power (which exceeded 1.5 exaFLOPs earlier this year), as company spokesperson Ben Visser readily admits: "When it comes to processing power, this is not the world's strongest, but that is not the point. We want to have as many people as possible participate and show that every effort helps." For BTO, this means not just running a showroom full of laptops day and night in support of the COVID-19 research, but also directly calling on its close to 10,000 newsletter subscribers to join the effort. One of them, Veejays.com, the biggest Dutch collective of VJs, already is contributing more computing power to the new Folding@Home project than BTO.

"We hope as many people as possible will join us, as literally every computer can contribute" says BTO CEO Remco van Doorn.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the coronavirus has given a new purpose to Folding@Home. By 2020 the software had become a niche application, though still running on around 30,000 computers. In late February of this year however, the organization behind it announced it would start researching the new coronavirus, which brought a dramatic increase in users, with 400,000 systems added in March alone. By now the organisation's statistics page shows that well over 3.5 million CPUs are running the application, along with over half a million GPUs. The total compute power exceeded 1.5 exaFLOPs. To put that into perspective, this is about seven times faster than Summit at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, currently the world's fastest supercomputer.

Users who want to help and join the team can download the application directly from www.bto.eu/folding.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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