In early March, Tory Johnson—the head of IBM Rochester, the career employee who has taken his share of important phone calls—got a message from the U.S. National Laboratories and IBM’s New York office.
The United States Department of Energy was requesting—in the firmest of terms—that the Rochester location, among others, shift their supercomputer support team to “high alert.”
Because, 800 miles away at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Summit—the world’s fastest supercomputer, developed and delivered and supported in large part in Rochester—was being pressed into action to fight the pandemic of COVID-19.
The Department of Energy was reaching out to a worldwide consortium—including NASA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and others—to help Summit find a cure.
Johnson contacted IBM Rochester’s Lab Services Team to make Summit support a top priority.
He met with the Global Supply Chain Team to prepare for shipment of integral replacement parts.
Summit, which is capable of 200 million billion calculations a second, was being reconfigured to analyze 8,000 chemical compounds that could help stop the deadly virus.
The IBM Rochester site is closely involved with the support of Summit, currently rated as the world’s top supercomputer in a competition that still carries a lot of weight in the computer communities.
Summit has the power of 200 petaflops.
“Imagine if everyone on earth made one calculation at the same time, every second for an entire year,” says Johnson. “That’s what Summit can do in one second.”
Built for the United States Department of Energy for civilian scientific research, the $325 million Summit was designed and delivered—and is now supported—by teams in Rochester. And now it was being reconfigured to fight a virus.
“Viruses infect cells by binding to them and using a ‘spike’ to inject their genetic material into the host cell,” according to Dave Turek, Vice President of Technical Computing, IBM Cognitive Systems.
“Computer simulations can examine how different variables react with different viruses, but when each of these individual variables can be comprised of millions or even billions of unique pieces of data and compounded with the need to be run multiple simulations, this can quickly become a very time-intensive process.”
Within two days, researchers used Summit to simulate those 8,000 compounds and narrow it down to 77 small-molecule compounds—such as medications and natural compounds—that have shown the potential to impair COVID-19’s ability to dock with and infect host cells.
By mid-April, IBM-Rochester was involved in other COVID-19 initiatives—including more Summit projects, Watson For Citizens (an AI-based portal to answer common COVID-19 questions), and implementing more efficient supply chains for necessary medical equipment.
“Right now, we’re doing some groundbreaking things right here in Rochester,” he says. “We always have been.”