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IBM Tackles Life Science Data Management Market, but Can Big Blue Overtake Oracle?

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As if going head-to-head with perennial life science hardware providers Compaq, Sun, and SGI weren’t enough of a challenge, IBM said it considers itself in direct competition with Oracle for market share in data management solutions for life science research.

Caroline Kovac, vice president of IBM’s life sciences unit, said that IBM intends to chip away at Oracle’s near-monopolization of the industry by promoting its DiscoveryLink data management and integration system and DB2 database platform to pharmaceutical and biotech companies as well as academic research groups.

While IBM does not intend to cut back on its more well-known supercomputing efforts, Kovac referred to the media’s coverage of this work as “old news,” noting that “Data management is every bit as important, and maybe more important [to the life sciences] than supercomputing.”

Since losing its high-profile bid to provide the compute power for Celera’s sequencing effort to Compaq, IBM has been battling to overcome its image as a latecomer to the life science IT market. The company most recently made headlines in the sector by installing a 7.5 teraflop computer at NuTec Sciences in December and a 700 gigaflop system for MDS Proteomics in January. IBM supercomputers are also being used for computational biology and genomics projects at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, and several other research centers, the company said.

But while IBM’s reputation for “big iron” supercomputing projects may have helped it land some hardware deals in the life science sector, industry observers said that moving onto Oracle’s turf may prove far more difficult.

“Oracle has more of a monopoly than Microsoft does,” said Rudolph Potenzone, who recently left his position as senior vice president for marketing and development at MDL information systems to serve as CEO of Lion Bioscience’s US operations.

Indeed, it appears that Oracle’s new partnership with Myriad Genetics and Hitachi to map the human proteome will only strengthen its position in the market.

In order to compete in this space, IBM will have to demonstrate that its data management solution can truly meet the unique needs of the life science research community, a proposition that induces skepticism in some observers. For example, some have questioned DiscoveryLink’s ability to handle the flat files that comprise the vast majority of databases in the industry.

However, Jeff Augen, director of solution development at IBM, countered that DiscoveryLink’s use of wrappers permits flat files to be searched as if they were relational. “It has every capability that the flat file database would normally have, plus you can join that query into a query against a relational source, so that’s a huge advantage,” Augen said.

Augen said that the wrappers, in combination with an optimizer that rewrites the queries of native systems’ search tools in order to speed the process across several data sources, offer features not found in any other product on the market.

Augen cited a pilot demonstration at an undisclosed pharmaceutical company, where DiscoveryLink ran a query against a combination of Oracle databases and flat files in a half hour, returning around 80,000 from the Oracle database. Augen estimated that this job would have taken a month using Lion’s SRS.

Both Augen and Kovac pointed out that they don’t view Lion or other bioinformatics companies as competition, but rather as potential partners.

Augen said that DiscoveryLink could enhance the capabilities of current bioinformatics tools by linking the databases and infrastructure they provide with other databases and infrastructures. In Lion’s case, for example, Augen noted that SRS can’t link bioinformatics tools to data sources. DiscoveryLink could be used to wrap SRS so that it could link to other tools, he said.

But Friedrich von Bohlen, CEO of Lion, bristled at the suggestion. “We’ve seen the [DiscoveryLink] technology. There is nothing that is new, novel, intelligent, or interesting,” he said.

And to add to the mounting pile of challenges, DiscoveryLink’s “federated database” approach, which permits users to access distributed and heterogeneous data sources without porting them into a central repository, also faces competition from providers of data warehousing solutions that claim that a centralized repository of curated data better serves the needs of large, distributed research organizations.

Kovac noted that the best solution may be a combination of data warehousing and a federated system such as DiscoveryLink, which she said is better for data sources that are constantly changing.

Despite the daunting obstacles in its path, IBM is confident in its ability to capture a significant portion of the IT market for the life sciences, which the company has forecast to reach $40 billion by 2004.

Since launching its life sciences initiative in August, Kovac said, IBM has announced a new partnership nearly every month and she proposed that that this rate would continue into the future. Further details on whether it has met the goals of the initiative to date were not provided.

By setting its sights on the data management portion of the market, forecast to reach $4.5 billion by 2004, IBM may have found a way to get its foot in the door of a sector.

Janet Perna, IBM’s general manager of data management, said that growth of DB2 has been over 70 percent annually over the last several years and that over 1000 Oracle customers have turned to DB2 in the past year. These numbers were not broken down to indicate the number of DB2 customers in the life science sector, however.

But perhaps more noteworthy than IBM’s staking its claim in Oracle’s territory is the matter of who is absent from this segment of the IT market: IBM’s traditional competitors in high-performance supercomputing, Compaq and Sun, have no data management solution at this time, Kovac noted.

— BT

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