The Hull supercomputer playing its part in tackling global coronavirus pandemic

The Hull supercomputer playing its part in tackling global coronavirus pandemic

By David Laister Barnabas Stephenson , 28 APR 2020

The city of Hull is playing its part in providing cyber support to tackle Covid-19.

The University of Hull’s £2 million supercomputer has contributed to vital global research while across town a city firm offers up innovative software to the NHS for free.

Known as Viper, the university’s supercomputer became the fastest machine of any northern university when it arrived at the campus back in 2016.

Four years on, it is now helping scientists around the world better understand and tackle the spread of Covid-19.

Viper is able to download and process bite size chunks of huge computer simulations, and the final results can then be accessed by researchers across the planet.

The simulations would ordinarily be far too large for a normal PC to be able to download.

Chris Collins, research systems manager at the University of Hull, said: “It has been humbling to see how the university has responded to the challenges posed. From a team producing face shields for the NHS and healthcare organisations, to helping re-train former NHS staff, the university is doing everything it can in this difficult time.

“Using spare capacity on Viper – which is constantly supporting other research projects within the university – is us doing our little bit to help tackle Covid-19.”

The university’s high-performance computing team has partnered up with industry specialist OCF to support global research.

Hull academics and the high-tech equipment now form part of the Folding@home initiative, a project developed by Stanford University in California which focuses on disease research.

The project brings together personal computers, as well as those donated by larger companies and institutions from across the world and enables them to join together to run huge simulations.

The results help scientists better understand biology and provide new opportunities for developing treatments.

“Breaking up and distributing large tasks across personal computers is not a new concept, with projects using this approach since the 1990s,” Mr Collins said.

“Supercomputers like Viper are normally used to tackle the grand challenges of science and engineering on their own rather than as part of a distributed projects like this, however Covid-19 has really brought computers like Viper to the forefront of the Folding@home project .

“Everyone just wants to find something which will help prevent the virus from spreading. We cannot be on the frontline like NHS staff are, but this is something we can do to help.”

Across the city, and GlobalView Systems has created software to help hospitals manage oxygen demand, with 30,000 managers globally offered it.

Developed with specialists at the Institute of Healthcare Engineering and Estates Management in line with Department of Health guidance, the St Mark Street team has incorporated design parameters used in a variety of NHS environments, including the Nightingale field hospitals.

The software release follows advice from NHS England to take action to prevent oxygen supplies running short.

Coronavirus has led to a massive increase in the use of high flow oxygen therapy, including masks, ventilators and CPAP - continuous positive airways pressure. The simple software suite enables managers to assess the current and likely demand for oxygen in hospitals with in-patient facilities for Covid-19, and to model the most effective way of managing this.

It features flow rate assessment for piped systems and cylinder monitoring too, with use encouraged in less critical departments.

Matt Wright, chief executive of GlobalView, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic is applying significant pressure on the Hospital infrastructure and few NHS estate managers are confident that their systems are able cope.

"The increased demand for oxygen, and the age, condition and complexity of the distribution pipework can vary enormously in each hospital.

"We hope our software can deliver clear insight and the managers can see at a glance potential exposure, and smooth peaks in demand by changing the model of care, such as by increasing the use of cylinder oxygen in other areas of the hospital.

“We’re passionate about helping the NHS and were looking for ways to offer additional support during this national emergency.

"The estates and facilities teams do an amazing job in supporting the clinical services and this provided us with the ideal opportunity to play our small part in helping those on the front line.”

Walsall Manor Hospital was one of the first to use the new software, which features a real-time dashboard with at a glance view of current stock levels.

Andrew Williams, estates and facilities project manager, said: “GlobalView has risen to the challenge in record time, and I now have access to all the data I need, quickly and simply.”