In front of a dual-computer workstation at his home in San Diego, computational chemist Andy Jennings uses X-ray diffraction and 3D molecular-modeling software to build a crystal structure of the virus that causes COVID-19. Simulating the reactions between different molecules and proteins, Jennings tests multiple compounds until he finds one that completely binds to the structure’s surface, inhibiting the protease, and stopping the COVID-19 virus from replicating.
Jennings has spent decades helping top pharmaceutical companies do this kind of modeling. In the case of COVID-19, researchers are exploring whether new or existing “small molecule” drugs can disrupt the virus and then stop or slow the disease’s progression.
But such work requires massive computing power. Whether it’s simulating a drug molecule of 20 atoms with quantum mechanics to learn how electrons behave, or assessing multiple molecules made up of 2 million atoms, these tasks could take weeks using a cluster of traditional on-premises high-performance computers. Throw in a simulation of a drug molecule’s reaction to different proteins, and that could take several months.
“These things require enormous calculations,” Jennings says, adding that, “not even big pharmaceutical companies can justify buying an on-premises cluster big enough to speed through a few bursts, because for the better part of the year, that cluster just sits idle.”
In 2018, Jennings began using the animation rendering platform GridMarkets to run molecular simulations, rendering complex molecular models in less than 24 hours.
We don’t own or maintain any hardware, and we’re paying 70% less to spin up an instance on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure than we did running workloads on Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud.
GridMarkets serves more than computational chemists like Jennings. Its customers also include animators and visual effects artists—anyone who needs a simple, fast, affordable, and secure way to render animations or simulate mathematical models in the cloud. Cofounded in 2011 by serial entrepreneur Mark Ross, GridMarkets is part of the Oracle for Startups program that supports growing young companies, and it runs the GridMarkets platform on high-performance servers located in Oracle Cloud data centers around the world. “With Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, there’s no need to queue requests or schedule renderings. Our customers can access an unlimited number of machines whenever they need them, without having to pay for unused capacity when they don’t,” Ross says.
One of the things Jennings likes most about GridMarkets is that “I can select how many machines I want to run my simulations, and then hit go,” Jennings says. In a matter of seconds, GridMarkets configures the software and compute resources, encrypts the data, and when the job’s finished, the machine shuts down, so there are no lingering costs. “None of this ties up local resources, I don’t have to be sitting behind a company’s firewall, and I can do it from home on a laptop,” he says.
Such pay-for-use capacity is also how GridMarkets keeps its own costs low. “We don’t own or maintain any hardware, and we’re paying 70% less to spin up an instance on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure than we did running workloads on Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud,” Ross says.
Using cloud-based resources also means that people can access this high-performance computing from any location. That helps freelance professionals such as Jennings. And as COVID-19 forced college campuses to close, that anywhere-access proved a savior for animation students trying to finish their final projects.
Return to Render
Dallin Jones is a student animator who was just about to finish his senior year project when Brigham Young University closed its campus due to the coronavirus. “We’d been working on a 6-minute film for the last year and a half, had finished lighting most of the shots, and just started to render when the school shut down,” Jones recalls. His on-site team dwindled from 18 students to just 6 as people headed for home, and the school limited access to its animation lab. “I didn’t think we’d be able to render the film before the June 1 deadline,” he says.
In an animated film, getting each shot right requires lots of physics equations—to accurately show how sand drifts across a beach, or how a building catches fire and explodes. “The art, science, physics, math, and computer programming, which animators must do to build every rock, sand particle, and structure, takes an enormous amount of time, so the students are under pressure to compress production from months to hours,” says Seth Holladay, associate professor of animation at Brigham Young University.
Since January of this year, Jones and his team had been working on Salt, a 6-minute film about a young Senegalese girl and her mother working in the salt flats of Cap-Vert. Intricate details, such as golden sunlight bouncing off ebony skin tones, dancing through textured hair, and rippling over water washing onto a salted beach took the better part of the year for Jones’ team. But just as the students were about to hit the “render button,” the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to close.
“The technical resources and computer availability scaled back a lot,” Holladay says. “That’s when we moved the project over to GridMarkets.”
Compared with running on BYU’s computers, the project gained a major speed boost from using GridMarkets on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. Before the shutdown, Jones and two other students began rendering their film in the on-campus computer lab, which took four to five hours to complete a single shot. “We were running our servers at maximum capacity, but still weren’t going to finish rendering the film on time,” Jones says. With GridMarkets, “we were able to quickly upload all of our additional shots to the GridMarkets console, and in about 90 minutes, the renderings were complete.”
Some 1,300 miles southeast of BYU, Texas A&M University senior animation student Emmalie Hall was developing a 30-second ad for her final project in March. “Our team just finished building all of our scenes, formatting the files, and transferring them to our rendering platform when the school shut down,” Hall says.
With just two weeks left to render the ad, and no access to the school’s computer lab, the animation associate department head Barbara Klein told her class about GridMarkets.
Unlike the serial rendering process of the school’s on-campus server pipeline, “GridMarkets provides us with an unlimited number of nodes running simultaneously in the cloud, reducing our total rendering time from 6 to 10 days to just hours,” Klein says.
GridMarkets can run hundreds of virtual machines at once. “The big difference between Oracle and its competitors is that Oracle’s VMs have more memory, more compute, and are more responsive,” Ross says. “It’s just a much better value for us and our customers.”