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Microsoft’s submarine data centre is processing Covid-19 research workloads

Written by Wed 17 Jun 2020

Project Natick

Sunken data centre-in-a-shipping container is top contributor to Folding@home distributed computing project

An experimental data centre sunk by Microsoft in the sea off the Scottish coast is being used to process workloads that could help scientists understand and design treatments for Covid-19.

Microsoft, which plunged the data centre into the sea off Orkney in 2018 as part of Project Natick, revealed the Folding@home computing project is harnessing the facility’s processing power to research viral proteins that cause Covid-19 in a bid to design therapeutics that might thwart it.

The Folding@home research project simulates protein dynamics to get a feel for protein complexity. These simulations can identify sites on a viral protein that potential treatments could bind to, for instance.

It is what is known as a distributed computing project, meaning its research is powered by the accumulated power of personal computers located in many different locations.

Microsoft’s experimental sunken data centre is perfectly suited to the project as unlike the company’s commercial Azure data centres that are packed with high-end servers, the Project Natick facility is stacked with 864 generic servers that resemble thousands of high-end personal computers.

The research data centre regularly eyes distributed computing projects to assist if it has spare capacity, as one of its major research goals is to evaluate the facility’s temperature control when working at full capacity.

The facility is now in the top 1 percent of contributors to the Folding@home distributed project, revealed Spencer Fowers, technical lead for Project Natick.

“That’s largely because the servers are “100% of the time dedicated to this project,” he explained. “They are constantly working on workloads and it allows us to do a big contribution.”

Microsoft has also provided the project with more commercial Azure AI resources, which have already revealed sites on the virus that potential drugs could bind to, the company said.

Project Natick is a years-long research effort investigating the feasibility of manufacturing and operating prefabricated data centre units that can be left to operate on the seafloor for years.

The Orkney data centre is about the size of a shipping container and has been operational 117 feet under the sea since June 2018.



Written by Wed 17 Jun 2020


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