Microsoft’s undersea datacenter helps the hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine

An experimental Microsoft datacenter submerged beneath the sea in Scotland’s Orkney Islands is processing workloads for a global, distributed computing project to understand the viral proteins that cause COVID-19 and design therapeutics to stop them.

Distributed computing projects harness otherwise idle computer processing power to perform specific tasks for big science research. Ongoing projects include efforts to understand climate change, map cancer markers and fight infectious disease. The trend started in the late 1990s when tens of thousands of people downloaded the SETI@home screensaver to hunt for extraterrestrial radio signals.

The Folding@home distributed computing project launched in October 2000 to simulate protein dynamics. Proteins are molecular machines that perform many functions essential to life, ranging from providing a sense of taste and smell to muscle contraction and hair growth. How proteins – chains of amino acids – fold into structures determines their function. The Folding@home simulations can lead to breakthroughs such as identifying sites on a viral protein that a therapeutic drug could bind to.