Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast

Joe Stanganelli, Founder and Principal, Beacon Hill Law | 4/30/2012 | 28 comments

Joe Stanganelli
Last week, I wrote an article about how keynote speaker Martin Leach presented a convincing argument to Bio-IT World Conference 2012 attendees here in Boston as to why the biggest obstacle facing the health and life sciences industry in the age of "big-data" is not one of storage, but of computing.

Accessibility, analysis, and integration are the sole true bugaboos, says Leach, making storage issues but a petty distraction when it comes to genomics and others who work with intensive bioinformatics.

Turns out, not everyone here agrees.

Robert Bjornson is director of IT at the Yale Center for Genome Analysis (YCGA). "We spend almost no time thinking about computing. We spend all of our time thinking about storage," told Bjornson to a room of a few dozen conference attendees.

In a presentation about IT infrastructure and hardware, Bjornson talked about the technological challenges YCGA and similar organizations face.

"Drives," he aptly observed, "fail."

Even Leach does not dispute this fact of IT life. The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where Leach is CIO, boasts the largest genomic datacenter in the world, with over 10 petabytes of data on spinning disks -- and every day to day-and-a-half, one of those disks fails.

"When you have 1,000 drives, expect failure," confirms Bjornson, by way of advice. What's more, backing up all of a genomics organization's data -- which can number in the petabytes -- just isn't practical.

Cost is also a factor (Moore's Law notwithstanding) for some customers, says Bjornson -- at least psychologically. Despite the price of storage falling, many enterprise and high-level organizational customers maintain a consumer market perspective. "I can't tell you how many times people have said, 'Why does this cost $1,000 a terabyte?' " says Bjornson, relating laughable characterizations of customers who protest that hard drives at Best Buy can go for about $65 per terabyte.

Big-data customers may be their own worst enemy in more ways than one. YCGA's customers use YCGA's storage and YCGA's cluster. Cautions Bjornson, however, "It's risky to let customers into the factory." They can crash the login node. They can overload the storage. They can "do any one of a number of things that people do when they get the chance," Bjornson says, and any of those things can interfere with their data management and data analysis.

To be fair, this is an example of a risk that falls under both the "storage" and the "accessibility" umbrellas -- and there are others.

For instance, Bjornson himself concedes that search is a huge problem in big data genomics, as he presents a slide that reads, " 'Find' does not work on 2PB on Storage." Genome sequencing, of course, is a data-intensive field -- yet the field of genomics lacks a truly effective data identification solution ("a Google search for data," as Leach called it on Tuesday), says Bjornson. "We don't have it. We really need it."

Nonetheless, "storage, for us, is by far the hard part," maintains Bjornson.

Both sides of the accessibility vs. storage discussion raise very valid points -- and have very real concerns. Alas, the hardware presentation series here at Bio-IT has been somewhat sparsely attended compared to other sessions. Conversely, so many Bio-IT attendees clamored to see the opening keynote speeches on Tuesday that dozens were relegated to an overflow room with a live video feed.

With so many of the attendees here having heard only Leach's advocacy for accessibility, arguments like Bjornson's about the importance of storage seem to have become lost in the din of the conference -- and therefore, ironically, much less accessible.

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CurtisFranklin   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   5/1/2012 10:50:32 AM
Re: Storage hubris, I remember the old statement, "Nature abhors an empty horizontal surface." I think that we could also say that, "Nature abhors an un-filled storage bit," and we'd be just as correct. I've watched storage requirements grow exponentially during the last 30 years -- I can hardly wait for the day when the desktop petabyte is commonplace!
Gigi   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   5/1/2012 6:15:56 AM
Re: Storage hubris
Joe, any potential outcomes for bioinformatics collaborative projects, for drug discovery. I heard that there are some proposals for TB, HIV and cancer drug discovery.
Gigi   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   5/1/2012 6:12:58 AM
Re: What about Cloud?
Taimoor, we had similar storage constrains for the Bio informatics projects and it's a collaborative project. What we had done is we formed a virtual group and create some common repository, where we kept all the datas. So those who are interested can access the data at any point of time, irrespective of location through net. This can help to avoid storing the same data at multiple locations.
Joe Stanganelli   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   5/1/2012 12:13:59 AM
Re: Storage hubris
Yes, Skr2011, scalability was a big part of the talks at the Conference.

Incidentally, this is why Netflix was pretty unaffected by the huge AWS cloud outage a year ago even though they're a major AWS customer -- because they were smart enough as an organization that handles enormous amounts of data to have so many redundancies that they could handle an outage.  It was the little guys who relied completely but without backups on the cloud who were screwed for the following days.
Joe Stanganelli   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   5/1/2012 12:07:52 AM
Re: Storage for Bioinformatics
Very nice breakdown, zerox, and rather one of the points I was going for.  Both concerns ought be heard and addressed for real progress.
Joe Stanganelli   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   5/1/2012 12:04:49 AM
Re: Storage hubris
As the saying goes, LuFu, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Joe Stanganelli   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   5/1/2012 12:03:08 AM
Re: What about Cloud?
Well, hold on there, kiddies, with all the talk about the cloud.

A recurring theme at the Conference was the unsuitability of the public cloud for a lot of bioinformatics work -- especially in the field of genomics -- because of the TREMENDOUS amounts of data.  Far too much to be sending across public cloud data lines.

One speaker related a tale of how a NY hospital ran a query that lasted four months.

And, of course, there are issues with proprietary data, HIPAA, and other confidentiality (this one's for you, Sara!) bugaboos.

Private clouds can be suitable in many instances (and, indeed, often the best option), however.

Joe Stanganelli   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   4/30/2012 11:58:24 PM
Re: What about Cloud?
Hi, Dave.  Thanks for weighing in.

This reminds me of a discussion from a Dell-sponsored Webinar E2 hosted quite some time back in which the speakers discussed how many IT Departments are most concerned with just keeping the lights on -- more than anything else.

Perhaps that is another part of YCGA's struggle.  Sure, better integration and accessibility would be nice, but it's a huge effort just to deal with what they have.   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   4/30/2012 11:57:23 PM
Re: Storage hubris
If we find we have some extra space, someone is going to come up with something to fill that space.

Absolutely! You could have posters and bumper stickers with that adage! I bet you have a Dropbox, and a Google Drive account (at the very least!), and several external hard drives filled with stuff.. :) And still wish there was more. The library of Congress has roughly 20Tb worth of stuff, and sometimes I wish I had as much space!
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David Wagner   Storage Doesn't Matter for Bioinformatics? Not So Fast   4/30/2012 11:36:01 PM
Re: Storage hubris
@Skr2011- And the opposite seems to be true, too. If we find we have some extra space, someone is going to come up with something to fill that space.
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