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Inpharmatica Gets a Taste of Supercomputing On Tap, Courtesy of Gateway and UD

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Call it the cow cluster. Gateway, know for its customer-oriented style and Holstein-print packaging, has partnered with United Devices to create the world’s second-fastest supercomputer. Nearly 8,000 of Gateway’s floor model PCs will be joined together in a 14-teraflop grid that spans the company’s 272 Gateway Country stores. Users anywhere in the world can tap into the grid for on-call compute, and will be billed monthly only for those cycles that they use.

While UD and Gateway expect this on-demand resource to appeal to a number of industries, the team has singled out mid-size biotechs as the most likely market for its approach. UD, whose MetaProcessor grid software ties Gateway’s demo machines together, has already identified big pharma as its first key customer base for enterprise grid systems, which live entirely behind company firewalls. Novartis has licensed MetaProcessor for 1,400 of its research desktops, and UD said it has two other large pharmaceutical firms in the pipeline as well. However, noted Paul Kirchoff, VP of marketing and business development at UD, the company found that smaller, venture-backed bioscience companies interested in the enterprise grid technology “frankly didn’t have a ton of compute resources on site.” The on-demand system should appeal to smaller firms with lower IT budgets than big pharma, but similar computational demands, he said.

As evidence of the appeal of the technology for biotech firms, London-based Inpharmatica signed on as the first pilot user for the program. Inpharmatica is no stranger to computationally intense projects: It built a 2,300-processor compute farm for its research that made it to No. 390 on the June 2002 Top500 computer list. But bragging rights to a fast computer just don’t cut it in drug discovery, according to Inpharmatica CIO Pat Leach: “When we first built these facilities two to three years ago we had to blaze the trail — building skills and expertise in large-scale computing, commissioning machine rooms, dealing with power and air conditioning. All very interesting stuff, but we are a drug discovery company, not an IT shop. We would much rather employ people to do innovative analysis of the data than spend time building computers.”

Inpharmatica ran two pilots using the Gateway/UD on-demand system: One on 200 machines and the second on 3,000 machines. The company compared the analysis it ran in the two pilot runs to the results from its in-house cluster, and found a 100 percent match.

Leach said the company hasn’t yet decided whether to sign on as a customer, however. “When it comes to it, we will do a simple commercial cost benefit analysis,” he said. Gateway plans to offer the service for 15 cents per GHz-hour through April 2003, according to project manager Premal Kazi. The price beyond that introductory period has not yet been disclosed.

Leach is sold on the potential of the technology, however, noting that it offers two key benefits: the ability to scale up or down to meet the needs of different experiments as well as “the potential to move the problems of managing large-scale computing to a third party.”

Security — the primary issue most biotech and pharmaceutical firms cite as a risk factor in grid or distributed computing — is actually “overstated,” according to Leach. “We have some of our computing hosted and managed by a third party — this sort of outsourcing is common practice and the UD/Gateway facility is just a step along the same road.” However, he added, “we do have some highly sensitive proprietary data that we process for our customers and we would certainly not put this onto a compute-on-demand facility without their express authority.”

Compute-on-demand is gaining headway on the vendor side of life science computing, if not yet on the customer side. Lion Bioscience and IBM are also targeting the small- to mid-size biotech market for an internet-based hosted informatics solution that runs Lion’s software on an IBM e-business hosting center. The UD/Gateway system offers a more general-purpose approach but, according to Kirchoff and Kazi, domain-specific core applications will soon be available that sit on the grid for customers to tap in, use, and pay.

Kazi said that the Gateway system offers an additional advantage over other high-performance computing options: The retail floor models that make up the grid are replaced with more powerful machines every six to eight months, which means the total power of the grid will only increase with time.

As far as Gateway is concerned, it has everything to gain and nothing to lose from this partnership — the computers are not being used to their full potential in the Gateway stores anyway, so why not generate a bit of additional revenue from them? Nevertheless, Kazi said the company performed “an enormous amount of testing on the business model and the technology to make sure we could do it.” In particular, he said, Gateway had to ensure that the screensaver-style grid software was unobtrusive and wouldn’t detract from customers’ experiences on the demo computers.

From UD’s perspective, the partnership will widen the available user base for its technology by opening up grid computing to smaller firms. The life science market remains a significant focus for the company, and “the key there will be having some proof points in terms of comfort level with security,” Kirchoff said.

— BT

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