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IBM Nabs Another Customer on the New Frontier

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IBM recently sold the world’s fastest nongovernmental compute system to Atlanta-based NuTec Sciences for gene-related research. The sale of the 7.5-teraflop cluster, capable of performing 7.5 trillion calculations per second, gives IBM a “distinct advantage” in the genomics marketplace, says Jamie Coffen, worldwide director of life sciences solutions at IBM. NuTec’s existing relationships with the NIH and the National Human Genome Research Institute served to sweeten the deal.

The announcement is IBM’s latest step to position itself as a major genomics player. In August, the company announced an initiative to invest $100 million in the development of IT solutions for processing genomic data. Since then, IBM’s life sciences unit has also formed technology partnerships with Incyte Genomics, First Genetic Trust, and Structural Bioinformatics.

NuTec plans to run several massively parallel applications on the cluster, which is made up of 1,250 IBM eServer p640 devices running on IBM’s DB2 Universal Database, supported by 2.5 terabytes of memory, 50 terabytes of online disk storage, and a high-bandwidth networking infrastructure. A combinatorics algorithm that NuTec is developing in collaboration with the NIH to analyze disease-causing gene combinations is particularly compute-intensive, says Peter Morrissey, president of NuTec’s life sciences division.

NuTec also plans to rent the machine to academic research centers, biotechs, and large pharmaceutical companies. Clients can use NuTec’s algorithms or the facility to run proprietary compute-intensive datasets in a secure environment.

Morrissey says that NuTec tested a number of hardware systems in its Houston supercomputer center, including Sun, Hitachi, Compaq, and Linux clusters. IBM offered the most efficient platform based on performance and cost for NuTec’s applications.

Some market watchers speculate that IBM, whose computers are historically among the more expensive, might have cut NuTec a deal to secure a stronger foothold in genomics.

Coffen concedes that IBM had not yet “taken [its] market strength into this genomics market except on the academic and federal lab side,” although he denies that Big Blue is playing catch-up within the sector. “I think that the genomics market is just taking off right now,” he says.

A new “seamless informatics” software NuTec is developing using IBM middleware will be a key component of IBM’s future market position, says Coffen. Dubbed GeneCare SI for the time being, the software package will allow users to integrate genetic data with medical records data. Coffen says this is “the next frontier of biological science.”

—Bernadette Toner

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