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With Sales on the Books, Competition Heats Up Among Distributed Computing Vendors

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March came in like a lion for vendors of distributed computing technology — no fewer than six life science organizations signed on to the alternative computing approach over the course of the month.

Fast on the heels of Entropia’s announcement early in the month that Isis Pharmaceuticals had licensed its DCGrid software and Avaki’s news that Gene Logic, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, and Structural Bioinformatics had licensed its Avaki 2.1 grid software, United Devices and Platform Computing announced new customer wins of their own. United Devices secured Novartis Pharmaceuticals as the first paying customer for its MetaProcessor platform, while Platform added the University of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital to its customer list for LSF ActiveCluster.

Dave Wilson, VP of marketing and business development at UD, said the Novartis contract was significant for a number of reasons. For one thing, UD beat out two of its competitors for the deal — Novartis was running pilot studies with both Entropia and Platform before deciding on the UD technology. But more important, according to Wilson, is the fact that Novartis is the “first major pharma to adopt distributed computing for its desktop network.” Calling the deal a “watershed for the maturation of this category,” Wilson said that “it will send a message in terms of validation of this technology.”

Vendors of distributed computing technology have maintained that despite an initially slow adoption rate in the life sciences research market, a domino effect was expected upon signs of customer buy-in. The flurry of recent agreements does seem to indicate that momentum is gaining.

Wilson said 1,000 desktop machines are currently included in the Novartis agreement, and this number is expected to increase as the company becomes more familiar with the technology.

UD also recently completed a project it began on January 22 to screen 3.5 billion small molecules against a known anthrax toxin protein. The project, a collaboration between UD, Intel, Microsoft, the National Foundation for Cancer Research, and Oxford University, “generated 6,300 years of cpu time in 24 days” to select approximately 300,000 small molecules for further study by the US Department of Defense, of which 12,000 are “particularly good hits,” said Wilson.

The success of such public research projects has been an important proof of concept for the technology, said Wilson, who noted that the applications for distributed computing run far beyond virtual screening. “This isn’t a one-trick pony,” he said, pointing out that Novartis will use the technology “across a broad spectrum of applications.”

Platform has also profited from the visibility of its work with France Telethon to speed genetic research for muscular dystrophy by linking 180,000 PCs across Europe. Princess Margaret Hospital will use ActiveCluster on 5,000 desktops to give 1,500 researchers access to additional computational power for cancer research. Over the next few months, Platform said, “thousands more computers” from across the three hospital sites making up Toronto’s University Health Network will be added to the network.

Yury Rozenman, director of life sciences business development at Platform, told BioInform recently that the company has a number of ActiveCluster pilot projects in place, and expects more deals to close over the next few months.

— BT

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