Dust off your hardware for COVID-19

I’ll tell you a personal story, hoping that it will encourage as many of you as possible to dust off some old computer you have in a storage of yours to help finding a cure against COVID-19 and, hopefully, many other diseases. If that sounds interesting, please read on.

It was early April 2020. The Easter break had just started. Like in many other countries, lockdown was enforced in Norway, and like many other people, I was staying at home as much as possible. Bad news about the spreading of the infection  of COVID-19 were pouring in from all over the world the whole world. In motherland Italy in particular, 800 people were dying every day. Every. Single. Day. I don’t know where you, the reader, live, but I am pretty sure that in your country there are several villages that have a population of 800 people or less. Can you imagine one or more of these villages just… disappearing, one after the other, every day? That’s what was happening in Italy.

I was reading and watching the news reports, feeling powerless and wondering if there was anything that I could do besides following the recommendation of the authorities to reduce the spreading of the virus. There must have been something that a Computer techie could do.

Suddenly, I remembered about distributed computing projects like Seti@Home or the RC5 project from distributed.net, and started wondering if something similar existed for medical research, possibly working on COVID-19, that I could contribute to. A few seconds later I tweeted:

tweet-covid19

It was April 4th at 12:19. I got two answers in about 30 minutes, suggesting Folding@Home. Folding@home is a distributed computing research project about diseases related to malfunctions of protein processes in the body. Diseases like some forms of cancer, neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and infections like Ebola and, of course, COVID-19. I’d like to encourage you to spend a couple of minutes watching the introductory video on YouTube, that explains the project way better than I could possibly do.

I installed the client on my laptop and after a while it started crunching data. The fans were spinning like crazy and the laptop was overheating, but it worked! At 5PM I was on twitter again, enthusiastically announcing that I was going to dust off some hardware to make it work 100% on the cause. Maker time!

tweet-foldingathome

I gathered some old stuff I had stowed here and there at home:

  • Two ~10yo old Dell Optiplex 745, one Optiplex GX620
  • A ~10yo Dell screen
  • A ~20yo network switch 10/100Mbit
  • 2 USB sticks (one for installing the OS, one for the software)
  • A Logitech wireless USB keyboard with trackpad
  • One power extender
  • A small IKEA table
  • Added some configuration management with CFEngine (helps f.e. with updates)

I worked in all the time I could spare, and after 5 days I finally had the three PCs reinstalled and crunching work for Folding at Home. That didn’t end up there though.

tweet-covidcluster

In the beginning I was contributing anonymously to the project, but after a while I became curious to know how much I was contributing, so I founded a team and started following the statistics. In two months, I had contributed nearly 200 work units.

tweet-teamsarway

That was nice. I was ready for the next step.

On Friday, June 12th, it was demo day at RiksTV. I booked 10 minutes for presenting the same information you are reading here, and thankfully a few colleagues decided to give an hand. I renamed my team from “Team Sarway” (Sardinia and Norway) to “Team RiksTV”, and it was a great pleasure to see the number of work units grow faster than usual.

2020-06-28 17.36.17 stats.foldingathome.org 70e883888a29

Are there downsides? Well, of course there are:

  • Heat (the room is 1°C warmer than the adjacent room with the door open, 3-4°C with the door closed)
  • Noise (fans spinning constantly)
  • Dust (constructions work in the area, lots of dust coming in and being blown around by the fans)
  • Power consumption (don’t know how much, didn’t really care…)

And now it’s your turn. If you want to contribute, all you have to do is to dust off some old computer you are not using any more, install the client and start contributing. The more we are, the quicker we’ll get to a cure for COVID-19 and a number of other terrible diseases. And if you don’t have hardware to dedicate, don’t worry: the client can be configured to work only when your computer is idle, so that you can run it even on a computer that you use every day.  You’ll find the clients here. And if you feel you need a bit more information about the project and how it works before you start contributing, you can watch this 8-minute video from Engadget.

Thanks in advance
— bronto

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