Sunday, 19th September 2021
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Data centres will become hubs for the medical research and development

The world jumps forward in times of crisis. World War One gave us stainless steel and wristwatches, World War Two gave us penicillin and duct tape. Whilst it is impossible to look back on the current crisis with any real clarity, it is clear that a huge amount of innovation has been initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic. By David Bloom, partner at the Noé Group, founder of Goldacre and investor in KAO Data

Medical research, not just in treating coronaviruses, but also for a range of other diseases and illnesses, has taken a quantum leap forward in the past 12 months. This trend is only likely to increase as supercomputers enable scientists and researchers in the pharmaceutical sector to reach to previously unachievable hights in R&D. Data centres will play an essential role in supporting this innovation.

Supercomputers have opened up new avenues in medical research At the beginning of March it was announced that the Oxford University team responsible for developing a COVID-19 vaccine were deploying the same technology to revolutionise cancer treatment. The work uses harmless modified viruses to train the body to fight off the real thing. Although theoretical mRNA vaccine technology has existed since the 1960s, its development as a real-world solution to COVID-19, in less than a year, was supported significantly by supercomputers. This is one of countless examples of how supercomputing is shaping to play a defining role in medical research. Indeed, we now stand on the precipice of a dramatic expansion in medical research for a whole host of new medical developments.

For their part, supercomputers have been hailed for a number of years as the future of R&D across a range of sectors. From fighting climate change to discovering new, lifesaving drugs, many experts view High-Performance Computers (HPCs) as the solution to many of the world’s most challenging problems.

Since the start of the pandemic, supercomputers have played an integral role in speeding up research, enabling researchers to develop and model dozens of vaccines in mere months, an achievement that would have been widely deemed impossible a few years ago.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the US Government announced a consortium of government agencies and technology companies would make supercomputing resources available for R&D during the pandemic. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Kevin Esvelt, assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, who were part of the project, said that supercomputing resources were able to accelerate COVID-19 research dramatically. “Using only the lab methods, it would take many months longer, if it was possible at all,” Esvelt suggested. Supercomputers continue to play an integral role in developing vaccines and responding to new mutant variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Supercomputers enable high-intensity research to be conducted at a fraction of the time it would have taken even at the start of the century. Thousands of processors working together to make trillions of calculations per second, allowing vast amounts of data from a variety of sources to be analysed quickly. Then, a little over a decade ago we developed petascale computing and now we can deploy AI analytics on a variety of data at scale.

In the context of COVID-19, computational analysis and machine-learning facilitated by supercomputers allowed researchers to compile colossal amounts of information about the virus and its structure. This allowed scientists to understand what elements of the virus will produce an immune response. This research has ultimately helped scientists to develop new types of vaccinations.

Data centres have an integral role to play in both the present and future of COVID

For data centres, which house these enormous systems, this moment in time represents an opportunity. Demand for data centres has increased rapidly in recent years. With so much of our work and social lives now taking place online, it is unsurprising that demand has taken off. We have seen the importance that cloud computing can play during the pandemic, not least for the billions of people around the world who have had to work remotely for the best part of the last year. According to a recent report by Knight Frank, capacity in London in 2020 increased by 412MW to a total of 1,539MW. From remote working to other pandemic phenomena, such as the increase in demand for gaming, video streaming boom, or growing popularity of videocalls, COVID-19 has changed the way we interact, pushing us towards the digital world. These side effects are likely to be felt for a long time after lockdowns are lifted. With these changes in behaviour, demand for data centres is only likely to increase.

However, it is perhaps not what is taking place already that is most exciting for the data centre sector, but the promise of what is to come. Supercomputers, housed in data centres, promise a new age of ground-breaking research. Understanding data centres not just in terms of the capacity, but also in terms of the research they can support, is essential for conceptualising the future of data centres.

Location, location, location

Kao Data Park, based in North London, is an example of a data centre that is putting research at the forefront. The Harlow campus sits on 15 acres of land and supports more than 40MW across 32,000 square feet of technical space. Kao Data is state-of-the-art by design – it supports one of the largest supercomputers in the world but is also built to be environmentally sustainable. This means that the supporting infrastructure is capable of both sustaining incredibly high levels of processing while remaining incredibly energy-efficient.

Kao Data was set up with the future of supercomputing in mind. The Cambridge-1 supercomputer will be an NVIDIA DGX SuperPOD™ system capable of delivering more than 400 petaflops of AI performance and 8 petaflops of Linpack performance, which would rank it No. 29 on the latest TOP500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. It will also rank among the world’s top 3 most energy-efficient supercomputers on the current Green500 list.

The location of a supercomputer matters; they are stars and innovation must be able to easily gravitate towards it. For medical innovation, the Cambridge-London corridor is second to none. Not only is the supercomputer at Kao Data conveniently located near the University of Cambridge, it is also now able to serve the renowned pharmaceutical sector in the region.

The intersection between supercomputers, medical research and 5G will also play an important role for future considerations. As a recent PwC report suggests, 5G allows communication to flow more freely across the globe. This means that researchers can work with colleagues in different parts of the work; someone based in Cambridge could use 5G technology to work with a fellow researcher based in Massachusetts. In order for this to happen successfully, edge computing will play an important role, which in turn means that more data centres must be located closer to the areas that innovation and research and taking place.

The location of a data centre is therefore paramount to the success of medical research in the future. Data centre owners have an integral role to play in securing this future.

Conclusion

Data centres will play an essential role in the future of medical research. As we have seen during the pandemic, there has been a quantum leap forward in the capability of medical research, not just for coronaviruses, but also for cancer, rare diseases, neurodegenerative conditions, influenza, and a whole range of other diseases. As has been observed by many, the coming decade will be dominated by scientific and medical innovation, with children idolising doctors alongside actors and footballers. Whether or not this comes to fruition, it is clear that scientific research will reach new heights in the 2020s. Data centres, and the supercomputers they support, will play a starring role in this future.


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