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Got Compute? Houston IT Firm Says Market is Ready for Bioinformatics on Tap

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Orion Multisystems isn’t the only IT player launching a new product with an eye toward the bioinformatics community. Last week Virtual Compute, a Houston-based IT services provider, announced that it has formed a new bioinformatics group to offer “on-demand” high-performance computing to the life science sector.

The company, housed in a 44,000-square foot nuclear-proof bunker from the Cold War era, currently provides storage, disaster recovery, crisis management, and other IT services for the petrochemical and legal markets. But the firm recently hired seven employees and built a 128-node cluster to support its new vCompute Bioinformatics Group. Like Orion, the company is running the BioTeam’s iNquiry software suite on the cluster, and plans to partner with additional software providers as well.

The company already has plans to scale up its initial compute capacity. Kurt Lovelace, CTO at vCompute, said that a 1,024-node cluster is currently on order, and that the company is also in discussions with Cray regarding a 144-CPU XD-1 system. Lovelace said the company is also looking at other systems, like the “hypercomputer” from Starbridge that runs an implementation of the Smith-Waterman algorithm [BioInform 04-12-04], and even the cluster workstations from Orion. “We’re trying to push the envelope as much as possible in every area, but from us you wouldn’t need to buy the box, you would just lease the time on it,” he said.

This pay-as-you go approach is at the heart of the company’s strategy. Ed Hawes, CEO of vCompute, said that on-demand services from IBM and other IT companies often require long-term commitments and tend to be more expensive than vCompute’s service, which can range from 20 cents to more than a dollar a node-hour, depending on the project and the type of system being used. In addition, Hawes said, vCompute offers a grid capability that can make its computers “a logical extension of a research organization’s environment.”

Hawes noted that “the bioinformatics industry doesn’t cycle like the petrochemical industry does when certain things change in the world.” As a result, he said, “we believe that this division of Virtual Compute will eventually become the most valuable division of the company.”

So far, the bioinformatics community has not shown a willingness to use on-demand resources. First-generation ASPs like Viaken and DoubleTwist proved unsuccessful, and Lion Bioscience recently discontinued its Lion Hosted Services offering in the North American market because “the numbers just weren’t there,” according to Joseph Donahue, president of Lion Bioscience North America. Donahue noted, however, that demand for these services is greater in Europe and Asia-Pacific, and the company still has several active contracts in those regions for its hosted bioinformatics services.

But Hawes said that the response to the bioinformatics offering has far outweighed vCompute’s expectations. After the company issued a press release about the new bioinformatics group last week, Hawes said the company was “inundated” with calls from drug companies and that the vCompute website received 16,000 hits within two hours. “We were shocked that there was so much pent-up demand in this market,” he said.

— BT

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