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Scientific American reports (accessed via HPCwire) that a project partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will use supercomputing to help stop the spread of malaria, which kills about a million people a year.

The team tasked with working on the malaria project is sharing a 1,104-core HPC (high-performance computing) supercomputer with a nuclear reactor research company. With the help of mathematical modeling, researchers are trying to find patterns in nature that would allow them to predict and control malaria outbreaks. From the Scientific American article:

The software pulls biological data on the behavior and reproductive rates of the Plasmodium parasites and the mosquitoes that carry them, as well as information on infection patterns and immune responses among humans. Other data include where people live and how they travel, environmental factors (temperature, rainfall and elevation) that are important to malaria transmission, and the locations of different species of mosquitoes.

The article also features an interesting discussion about cloud computing compared to local servers. The malaria research team is using local servers and not cloud computing for their simulations, even though the Microsoft software they are using is geared towards the cloud (see our post about the new Microsoft Technical Computing Group).

The team uses local servers for national security reasons – servers in the cloud frequently operate outside of the United States and many government-sponsored research projects can not put their data at risk in such a way. This illustrates that, despite the unifying effects of science and globalization, politics is still a formidable factor in even the noblest of global projects.

The article also notes that cloud computing is still far behind in performance compared to running local servers. As a systems engineer working on the malaria project observes, using local servers is about ten times faster than using the cloud.

While cloud computing technology still has a long way to go to catch up to the performance capabilities of locally-run servers, HPC in all of its forms is nevertheless helping people to battle some of the earth’s deadliest diseases.