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How Microsoft Azure Is Responding To COVID-19

Posted by De Nnochiri on April 24, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces organizations into a rethink of their priorities and business practices, conferencing and remote working have emerged as common bonds tying together enterprises across the globe. Services like Microsoft Azure are an important part of this.

But major cloud platforms are contributing to the worldwide COVID-19 management effort in ways other than facilitating the work of others. In this article, we’ll be looking at what Microsoft Azure is bringing to the table.

Azure And Medical Startup ImmunityBio Team Up To Model A Key COVID-19 Protein

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus behind the current global pandemic, becomes active in the human body through the action of a “spike protein” which allows the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 to enter human cells. The spike protein attaches itself to the human ACE-2 protein receptor, which allows the viral infection process to fully begin.

Scientists working on ways to prevent or minimize the spread of the virus within the body are principally looking to block the attachment of the COVID-19 virus to these human ACE-2 proteins. The easiest way for them to do that is to prevent the spike protein from connecting with the receptor that it targets.

This prevention occurs naturally in the case of patients who have recovered from a COVID-19 infection, due to antibodies that were present in their bloodstreams. Medical researchers working on potential vaccines for the novel coronavirus are attempting to recreate this action pre-emptively. At the same time, scientists developing treatments for COVID-19 sufferers are looking at ways of lessening the ability of the coronavirus to latch on to new cells as it replicates inside the body.

Research like this requires visual modeling — and that modeling requires an awful lot of graphics processing power. To furnish this, Microsoft Azure has teamed up with an immunotherapy startup called ImmunityBio, to provide a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) computing capacity of 24 petaflops. This level of processing power will enable researchers to work toward producing a detailed replication of the COVID-19 spike protein, at a very high degree of resolution.

Between them, Azure and ImmunityBio are making available a battery of 1,250 Nvidia V100 Tensor Core GPUs designed for use in machine learning applications from a Microsoft Azure cluster, in combination with ImmunityBio’s existing 320 GPU cluster, which is tuned specifically for molecular modeling work.

The partnership will enable researchers to produce a model of the spike protein within a matter of days, rather than the months that it would have taken otherwise. Researchers around the globe working on COVID-19 mitigation and prevention therapies will have access to data from this collaboration, hopefully hastening the way to more effective treatment methods.

Azure Scales Its Services In Line With The Threat

In response to government and health authority directives on social distancing, Azure has been observing increased usage of services that support these mandates, such as Microsoft Teams, Power BI, and Windows Virtual Desktop. Microsoft Teams now has to cater for more than 44 million daily users, who collectively generated over 900 million meeting and calling minutes on Teams daily, in a single week Similarly, the use of public Power BI by governments to share COVID-19 dashboards with citizens grew by 42 percent in one week.

According to Microsoft, its “top priority remains support for critical health and safety organizations and ensuring remote workers stay up and running with the core functionality of Teams.” To this end, the Azure platform is maximizing its monitoring efforts for first responders (Emergency Medical Services, firefighters, etc.). emergency routing and reporting applications (including specialist alerts for emergency response workers), medical supply management and delivery systems, and online medical resources such as health bots, screening applications, and web sites.

While scaling up its capacity for health and public safety, Azure is also having to balance things out by placing some temporary restrictions for services to other customers. Specifically, Azure has imposed limits on free offers, to prioritize capacity for existing consumers, and placed restrictions on certain resources for new subscriptions.

With recent usage surges in some regions (notably, Europe North, Europe West, UK South, France Central, Asia East, India South, and Brazil South), availability has in some cases dropped below Azure’s typical 99.99 percent. To cope with such lapses, the company has put a process in place to ensure that customers encountering repeated issues that will receive relevant mitigation options via Azure Service Health.

The Microsoft COVID-19 Response Site

With increasing numbers of people relying on cloud platforms to stay in touch and remain productive, Microsoft has established a COVID-19 Response site, covering Azure and its other web services. According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella:

“As the world responds to the outbreak of COVID-19, our thoughts are with the people affected and the medical professionals working around the clock to help those most in need. At Microsoft, we’re working to do our part by ensuring the safety of our employees, striving to protect the health and well-being of the communities in which we operate, and providing technology, tips and resources to our customers to help them do their best work while remote.”

The web site features a library of guidelines, with tips on how to use the Microsoft Azure platform, plus advice and best practices for remote working and collaboration. There are sections for workers in various industries, and sectors of society.

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