High Performance Computing- Powering its way into Life Sciences -- MEDICA - World Forum for Medicine

The Human Genome Project has been able to open new frontiers and gave life to new schools of "omics" sciences for scientists to research and change the existing paradigm of drug discovery. How ever at the same time, the post genome days is now witnessing the scientists grappling with a new problem of data deluge. As the oft repeated statistics clearly show the genomic data is following the exponential growth and testing the limits of Moore’s law. This mayhem of data growth has opened up new avenues of growth for many IT companies in the life sciences.

One of the major areas which is witnessing a lot of action is the area of High Performance Computing (HPC) environment. HPC systems are those where in a lot many computer processors are clustered to enable running of computing intensive applications. A large complex problem is divided into several pieces in such a way that they can be executed in parallel fashion on the various separate processors.

Life science is witnessing a strong demand for such HPC systems not only to convert huge deluge of data into actionable information but also just to handle this deluge. With drug discovery industry slowly taking the predictive route, the demand for superior computing is now larger than ever, to model and predict how a drug would affect a particular target and how it affects the progression of a disease.

HPC capabilities today have now become so important that increasing number of governments world wide are stressing on developing HPC capabilities to sustain their competitive edge in various industries.

HPC systems today, in life sciences are now a necessity to bring in greater understanding of diseases and discovery of newer and effective therapeutics. Realizing the crucial role played by HPC, vendors like IBM, Sun, HP, Cray, Silicon Graphics and other have been working hard to develop faster and meaner machines to satisfy this huge computing demand. Life Sciences is one of the few areas where scientists have enough applications which can devour any kind of computing capability and in fact present computing power available seems to lag behind the actual demand.

Visualization which is a process of representing data in a easily understood manner is one of the areas in life sciences which has a tremendous appetite for HPC systems. The development of newer and more efficient visualization systems in tandem with superior HPC systems seem to augur well for HPC industry.

IBM is the company which has sent a trend amongst other vendors to develop faster systems suited for life science applications. In 1999, it has launched a $100 million effort to develop Blue Gene, the fastest supercomputer available. IBM’s efforts seem to have borne fruit with scientists bring able to study the dewetting process associated with the folding of a melittin protein tetramer in water using Blue Gene’s awesome processing power. Simulations of such a scale were impossible to study using the earlier high-performance computing systems. With such processing power scientists would now be able to study how a particular protein affects a disease and develop more effective therapeuctics.

IBM though its Blue Gene project has been able to galavanise into action the entire HPC computing industry into action. The competition for the top spot which is currently being occupied by IBM’ is certainly getting more and more fierce. Companies like SGI, CRAY and Sun Microsystems all aim to develop super computers which would surpass the Blue Gene’s computing speed. The coming few years will see a lot of options for super computers open up for the life sciences industry.

To put into a clear perspective of the massive strides taken by the HPC industry in the last one decade, we should look at the top 500 super computers ranking in the world. It has been reported that system which is at 500th position of the HPC industry’s recent Top500 ranking of supercomputers has the processing power equivalent to all the top 500 supercomputers put together from the initial ranking list which was released in June, 1993. Notwithstanding this tremendous increments in the computer power available, life science researchers seem to demand even more superior performance. Researchers say that though simulating a stand alone protein will give insights into how a particular protein behaves, it is not a true representation of what happens in nature as a particular state in a biological process is due to interaction amongst a lot many proteins. To be able to simulate such kind of a complex interaction the need today is for far superior computing resources than what are available at present. This is the kind of latent demand that is driving the HPC market now and in the near future.

One of the other interesting developments to making HPC environment more pervasive in today’s life science industry has been the announcement by IBM to provide its Blue Gene computing infrastructure for rent. Through this service any company can which has period spurts in the demand for huge computing power can just rent out Blue Gene infrastructure for what ever time it required thus saving on huge overheads maintaining of such kind of infrastructure entails. Such a service can enable IBM to extend the usage of Blue Gene computers which till now was more or less confined to well funded academia / government funded research institutes into commercial arena where there might be a lot of budgetary constraints.


HPC industry today in life sciences is powering ahead notching up robust growth with intense competition amongst the various vendors to occupy the top slot. This intense competition while paving a way for a rapid growth is also opening up a plethora of options for life science researchers. HPC vendors are now in a position to make a significant impact on delivery of healthcare across the globe by powering the development of newer and more effective therapeutics.

For further information please contact:

Katja Feick
Corporate Communications
+44 (0) 207 915 7856