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Silicon Mechanics Touts Collaboration as Differentiator for its Hardware in Life Sciences Market

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BOSTON ― Seeking to woo customers in the life sciences market, IT firm Silicon Mechanics showcased its zStax StorCore 104 enterprise software-defined storage solution at the Bio-IT World conference held here this week.

The systems integration company offers rackmount server, storage, and high-performance computing products that it uses to build custom systems for clients in academia, industry, and government.

The firm doesn't yet have a large presence in the life science market but has snagged one key account. The company's hardware underlies Knome's KnoSys 100, an analysis platform that combines Knome’s KnoSoft genome interpretation application and kGAP informatics engine with a hardware platform configured by Silicon Mechanics (BI 9/28/2012).

Company representatives at the Bio-IT World conference told BioInform that they take a collaborative approach that involves working with customers to define their specific needs and then building bespoke solutions that are configured to those requirements. The firm believes this strategy will help it compete against other companies that offer compute infrastructure and storage to the life sciences market, including EMC Isilon, DataDirect Networks, Panasas, and IBM.

Its latest storage solution, the zStax StorCore 104, is built on ZFS ― a combined file system and logical volume manager ― and is based on standard x86 hardware, which provides open, unified storage management. Based on the NexentaStor operating system, zStax provides both network attached storage and storage area network capabilities, including support for CIFS, NFS, iSCSI, InfiniBand, and fiber channel storage access. It also incorporates technology from Seagate, a provider of hard drives and storage solutions, including a variety of hard-disk, solid-state, and hybrid storage technologies that can be customized based on customers' capacity and performance needs. The asking price for the system starts at $28,408.

Silicon Mechanics believes that its systems can help solve data challenges associated with analyzing, storing, and managing life science research, and that its collaborative business approach will be attractive to the customers in the space.

"We are not consultants, we don't teach them how to run their job, we don't point them to which community-supported code or commercially supported code to run," Ken Hostetler, the company's chief technology officer, told BioInform. "We say, ‘Do you know what you want and let's help you translate that into modern contemporary hardware?’"

For example, it worked with Knome to create a solution that could transfer large files quickly and meet security and privacy requirements. The final platform is a high-performance computing cluster with four nodes, each with two 8-core/16-thread, 2.4 GHz, 64-bit Intel Xeon processors with 20 MB cache, capable of 500 gigaflops per node, a Lustre storage system; and 512 gigabytes of random access memory.

In addition to providing bespoke compute infrastructure, Silcon Mechanics claims that its approach to infrastructure building results in more cost effective systems. Hostetler explained that unlike Isilon and other legacy storage vendors that offer software coupled with proprietary hardware platforms, "we can build on inexpensive enterprise commodity hardware that is the same hardware that those legacy vendors use … and then we [add] a software stack that is arguably as good if not better than some of the legacy vendors." That means that customers get a cost savings "because we are not overvaluing the hardware," he said.

Silicon Mechanics has other customers in the life sciences space besides Knome but it isn't disclosing specific names. However, Michael Fein, the company's director of sales, did say that the company's offerings seem to be particularly appealing to customers in the academic research space.

The company is also exploring cloud computing infrastructure. Hostetler told BioInform that the firm has some customers who are running private cloud deployments on Silicon Mechanics hardware and that the company is developing "a practice around assisting people with private cloud problem[s]." He would not disclose additional details about the company's plans.

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