Turning data into a knowledge solution

27 Nov 2003

There is a heavy burden on research and development (R&D) facilities in Ireland at the moment, not least because people keep telling them that the future of the country rests in their hands. Whenever long-term economic prospects are on the agenda, talk inevitably turns to climbing up the value chain, moving away from low-cost manufacturing to the hallowed ground of a knowledge and innovation society.

Much of this activity is currently taking place in educational establishments around the country, where cutting-edge technologies are used to drive the quest for knowledge. Datapac, the systems integration specialist that partners many of the leading IT players including Microsoft and IBM, is used to working with these campus companies, creating IT infrastructures that have very intensive and specialised requirements.

In some instances, they are building tools for learning establishments that will fundamentally change the way they operate. At the Bioinformatics Laboratory at National University of Ireland in Maynooth, the focus is on teaching as well as R&D through collaborative partnerships with industry and science-based institutions.

Bioinformatics is the interface between biological and computational sciences. With the help of Datapac and IBM, NUI Maynooth has deployed a Linux super-cluster that provides a platform for everything from research to teaching. It’s the first university in Europe to offer an undergraduate degree course in computational biology and bioinformatics.

“Our goal here is to set up a fully funded bioinformatics technology park that will go all the way from undergraduate and postgraduate teaching to post doctorate training and campus company spin out,” says Dr James McInerney, director of the laboratory. “We will also offer bioinformatics services to industry and to large pharmaceutical and biotech companies.”

Such a specialised field of research has a way of sweating its IT assets as McInerney explains. “We are looking into the human genome sequence, comparing the human and mouse sequence to try to quantify fairly accurately what the differences and similarities are between the human genes and mouse genes and the bits of DNA that control genes,” he explains. “It is not a trivial task. You need powerful computers when you start comparing this type of data.”

Ploughing through mountains of data is a big part of the computing prowess that specialist IT can bring to the research environment. Three years ago, the Hitachi Dublin Laboratory began to look at developing software for gene hunting, working with the department of clinical medicine in Trinity College Dublin (TCD). Such software would enable researchers to identify which gene or genes are responsible for a specific disease. The handling of the vast amount of data created by the project posed a considerable challenge to computer science.

Datapac has installed an IBM Linux cluster at TCD that consists of 50 IBM xSeries 330 servers. “The computations are hugely intensive,” says Dr Ross McManus, lecturer in molecular medicine at TCD. “Before the Linux IBM cluster was installed it used to take me days to run one small set of data, now using the Linux cluster it takes minutes.”

One of the hottest topics inside the corridors of academia is collaborative working. At the Trinity Centre for High Performance Computing, teams of technical experts work on cutting edge research and business development projects, collaborate with Global Networks of Advanced Computing and the Centre for Supercomputing in Ireland — a research partnership between TCD and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).

The centre provides high-performance computing services to individuals and research groups in TCD and allocates time, support, facilities and resources to get their large-scale parallel computer jobs running.

“We provided initial consultancy to the centre on this project,” says Jimmy Kehoe, account manager at Datapac. “Having analysed the requirements, both present and future, we saw that the Citrix MetaFrame for UNIX would greatly improve their ability to deliver true universal access to applications and server resources on any device over any connection.”

MetaFrame’s ability to centrally deliver any application on any device at any location provides researchers and students with access to the latest computing tools as well as the internet. It is deployed on an IBM supercomputer running AIX at QUB and all of the research groups within the colleges enjoy web-based access to applications via MetaFrame from college and home.

“Our people want solutions now, they want to be able to access applications from their desktop,” explains Professor James Sexton, director at the centre. “They want to be able to gain access to applications over the internet anytime, from anywhere. Our solution is enabling us to widen our research boundaries and I expect to be delivering services not only to academic users but also to business users in the near future.”