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Juno to Offer Distributed Supercomputing, But Will Pharma and Biotech Companies Buy it?

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Hoping to target genomics businesses and big pharma, Juno Online Services has become the first Internet service provider to enter the distributed computing market.

Juno, based in New York, has hired Yuri Rozenman, formerly with Applied Biosystems, to head the supercomputing project. With 4 million regular users of its Internet access service, Juno said it could process more information per second than any other supercomputer — assuming users allow Juno access to their hard drives. Currently, about 80 percent of Juno’s subscribers access the Internet for free, in exchange for allowing Juno to place advertising software on their computers.

Juno will face stiff competition from several other companies, including Entropia, United Devices, and Parabon, who began making plans last year to farm out huge computations to individual PCs.

But a bigger problem may be finding customers. Juno spokesman Gary Baker said the company hopes to target pharmaceutical and biotechnology businesses, but has yet to announce a deal. Furthermore, most pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies have insisted that any distributed computing take place only on PCs safely behind the company firewall.

Entropia, for example, claims to have about two dozen paying or potential customers — from large pharmaceutical to smaller biotechnology companies — all of whom insist that computations run only on in-house PCs.

“All of the pharmaceutical companies have said security is the biggest issue,” said Maya Natarajan, director of life sciences at Entropia, based in San Diego.

Andy Prince, a spokesman for United Devices, in Austin, Texas, agreed that security concerns are, for the moment, paramount. Of the company’s five pilot programs with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, he said, most involve networks of PCs inside a firewall.

And Parabon, based in Arlington, Va., is just finishing a trial computation for an undisclosed major pharmaceutical company —also behind a firewall, said chief technology officer Jim Gannon.

Baker countered that Juno’s software and interface, which are still under development, would take security concerns into account by incorporating strong encryption and fingerprinting technologies and decoy projects.

And for some scientists, this level of confidentiality is enough. John Weinstein, head of the genomics and bioinformatics group in the Laboratory for Molecular Biology at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., thinks current encryption technologies are sufficient for maintaining the confidentiality of a large class of bioinformatics computations.

“If someone sees a string of numbers, that person doesn’t know what molecules are involved, or even what disease is being dealt with,” said Weinstein. “There wouldn’t be a whole lot they could get out of it.”

But for other scientists, particularly those working for pharmaceutical companies staking a lot on their research, distributed computing has only a limited appeal.

“If you’re a real company then you’re willing to pay the few bucks it costs to do the work inside your firewall,” said Nat Goodman, senior vice president at Cambridge, Mass.-based bioinformatics consulting firm 3rd Millennium.

“I just don’t think people are so strapped for cash that they’re going to bottom fish [for the cheapest computing power].”

“Certainly being able to play in that space requires focus and execution power. It’s more than just being able to jump in and offer distributed computing power,” added Horacio Zambrano, product manager at United Devices.

Juno, however, is unfazed. The company has already made changes to the service agreement users must sign, giving the company the discretion to refuse free access if a user does not want to participate.

“We bring to the space existing infrastructure,” said Baker. “Hopefully this gives us a decent head start.”

— JSM

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