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Butler adds computer power to COVID-19 research

(Provided Photo/Butler University)

INDIANAPOLIS (Inside INdiana Business) — Butler University is donating the use of key technology assets to help researchers in the fight against COVID-19. The university says its newest  supercomputer, as well as computers from its esports program are being utilized remotely as part of the Folding@home (FAH) project. FAH, based out of Washington University in St. Louis, uses computers throughout the world in an effort to find drug pathways to kill the virus that causes the disease.

In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Butler Computer Science and Software Engineering Professor Jonathon Sorenson says bringing the university into the fold was an easy decision.

“Obviously they, like everybody, is working on the COVID-19 problem these days and with our suspension of classes on campus and doing everything online, our supercomputing facilities are being underutilized,” said Sorenson. “So we thought well why not use these with the Folding@home project and let them use our machines to maybe come up with something that will help everybody?”

The FAH project uses molecular protein folding computer simulations, which Sorenson says takes huge amounts of computing power. The goal is to find a drug pathway that the university says can cause a dysfunction in the folding of one or more proteins in the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which could kill it.

Sorenson says the supercomputer isn’t being used as much these days since due to the Indianapolis campus being closed. That idling allowed the university to use the supercomputer for FAH.

“There is client software that you install on the machines and then run in the background and then that client software will bring in work to do from Folding@home central servers and then run those simulations on the machine and send the results back. So it’s all soft of monitored on the background,” said Sorenson.

Sorenson adds an individual could sign up to share their personal computer at home, which could help conduct simulations in the background while it’s idle. He says that’s how the university’s esports computers came into play as well.

Doug Benedict, student activities coordinator for Butler, says not only do the computers have the processing power needed for the project, but joining the effort fits in the Butler Esports and Gaming Center’s mission of being a source for community engagement, outreach and philanthropy between esports events.

“We want to show the benefits of having this kind of space and this kind of technology to society as a whole,” he adds. “Technology has changed our lives time and time again, and clearly it’s going to continue to do that.”

Butler says now that it is online, the Folding@home project can now conduct 1.5 quintillion operations per second worldwide.