Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Inflection Point in Life Science Computing

Jacob  Farmer, the CTO of Cambridge Computer and an industry recognized expert on storage, recently shared with me his draft whitepaper which highlights the life sciences as experiencing the pain of storage growth more than any other industry.

Here's his very thoughtful observation

"Detailed Problem Statement
Until quite recently, life sciences research would not typically have been described as 'data intensive', certainly not in comparison with other scientific disciplines, such as high energy physics or weather modeling. In the last few years, however, new data-intensive modalities such as spectrometry, next-gen sequencing, and digital microscopy have entered the mainstream, thus unleashing an unprecedented tsunami of unstructured data.

Life Sciences IT professionals have been caught off guard. Having not grown up with data intensive research, life sciences IT professionals have had to improvise. When they look to their peer institutions for guidance, they find that their peers are in the same predicament. The institutions at the cutting edge  are constantly in triage mode, throwing money at the problem in order to keep their heads above water. On the one hand, these institutions are presenting at conferences and being heralded as examples for the rest of the industry. On the other hand, they are the first to admit that there are many problems left to be solved. Their experiences serve to warn the industry that things are going to get worse before they get better!"

One of the most significant IT leadership challenges is deciding when to change and when not to change.   Some technology projects in your portfolio should be on the bleeding edge, but not all, mitigating the risk that you'll implement technologies that are more hype than lasting innovation.

For example, in the 1990's BIDMC chose not adopt client/server technologies.  Instead it embraced the cutting edge web in 1996, skipping an entire generation of products.   Being late to client/server and early to the web created a great trajectory that has served us well.

Life Sciences is at an inflection point as Jacob notes.  Harvard Medical School has been an early adopter of high performance computing clusters but has proceeded cautiously on research storage.   A large investment in SAN over the past few years would have been too expensive.  A significant investment in early NAS would not scaled.   We've made and will continue to make moderate investments in high performance NAS backed by SSD drives for metadata management, ensuring that we meet the current needs of our customers.  However, we're going to step back and ask ourselves where the balance of cost, performance, capacity, information life cycle, and security needs to be in the future.   We'd rather be cutting edge on demand management/reporting tools/chargeback approaches but a fast follower on storage technology.

In the conference I'm speaking at today in Tokyo, Professor Nonaka described the 6 characteristics of a wise leader based on his May 2011 Harvard Business Review Article.  One of his major arguments is that leaders need to have explicit (factual) and tacit (practical/intuitive) knowledge.   I believe that the inflection point in storage technologies requires life science IT leaders to rely on their intuition, since user needs and storage technologies, per Jacob's comments, are changing too fast to rely on the facts.

Thanks to Jacob for sharing his insight.  I'm confident that life sciences IT leaders will experience disruptive innovation over the 18 months. Some will make wise investments and others will be less fortunate.   I'm optimistic that Harvard Medical School can navigate the rough waters ahead, accelerating technology adoption or putting on the brakes in response to the evolving environment.

1 comment:

Ninad said...

Fantastic post! Really enjoyed it—life is unpredictable to say the least and things often happen in less than direct way. I recently read a book named "obliquity" and author had similar views on may things as yours. Do check it out if you can find some time for it. I think you will enjoy it.