April 03, 2002, 5:23 PM — Like most of us, IT managers at major retailing or banking companies probably find the current revolution in life sciences research compelling because of its promise to disarm hereditary diseases or cancers. But they may not realize that they also have a professional self-interest in computationally driven work on genetics, proteins, and pharmaceuticals.
Vendors who have traditionally served enterprise IT customers are now turning, dollar signs flashing in their eyes, to the potentially lucrative new bioinformatics market. As they compete to meet the specific customer requirements in this niche, the side effect could be a technological payoff for their traditional customers across a wide range of industries.
At a time when other IT market segments have cooled, bioinformatics is hot, according to Mike Swenson, senior research analyst at IDC. "The major vendors clearly see that this has the opportunity to be a major growth area," he said. IDC predicts that the bio-science IT market will grow from US$10.4 billion in 2000 to about $38 billion in 2006, an annual growth rate of 24 percent.
A defining characteristic of bioinformatics applications are their use of extremely large amounts of data, which is pushing high-end server, storage and database technology development at companies such as IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Compaq Computer Corp. and Oracle Corp.
"There are several very important areas where our life sciences customers have had a profound impact on our technologies and products," said Ty Rabe, director of high-performance technical computing solutions at Compaq.
For example, life sciences customers have been taking relatively new technologies such as SANs (storage area networks) and scaling them up to extremely large sizes to find out if they are "bullet-proof," Rabe said. Celera Genomics Group has 120 terabytes of data stored on SANs, all set up using standard products, he said.
"In the process of creating these, we've discovered problems managing and moving around very large amounts of data," Rabe added. Compaq expects that other industries will get to that level of volume but over a longer time frame, and by the time they get there, such large-scale SANs will be truly bullet-proof thanks to the experience gained in life sciences.
For Sun's part, the explosion of data in both quantity and complexity -- "One person's DNA is 300 terabytes," said Siamak Zadeh, group manager of Sun's life sciences division -- is driving the company to develop a storage architecture roadmap from terabytes to exabytes. "We can handle the volume, but what about the I/O infrastructure to handle this, and the performance of I/O?" Zadeh asked.