Editor’s note: Long before there was the “cloud” or “big data,” leaders in North Carolina helped establish what was then called grid computing to form the “North Carolina Bioinformatics Grid”. It was a “moonshot,” backers conceded in January 2002. But their efforts helped researchers collaborate in new ways. Here’s a look back at the launch of that pioneering effort as WRAL TechWire observers the 15th anniversary of its launch in 2002.

Genomics Consortium Sees Building Its BioGrid as a Colossal “Moon Shot” Effort

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Researchers and administrators from academia, industry, and government met with the North Carolina Genomics Consortium to hear about its plans to create a super-fast distributed computing grid for life sciences research on Thursday.

About 140 people attended the Consortium overview of its plans for the “North Carolina Bioinformatics Grid”, which would be one of the first such networks in the nation. The event was held at the NC Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. Attendees hailed from California, Virginia, Tennessee, Washington State and Washington, D.C., as well as North Carolina universities, industries and agencies.

The Grid is to offer computing, data storage and networking resources for life sciences research necessary to help scientists, companies, and government keep up with a flood of new genomics data, a round of experts said.

Thomas Dunning, vice president of high-performance computing and communications at MCNC, which is seed funding development of the NC BioGrid, noted that in the just first 21 days this year scientists added three billion [DNA] base pairs to the GenBank, a database of genetic information.

Other speakers pointed out that genomics data is only one of the “omics” creating a data storage and analysis crunch.

The Moon shot in biology

“Bioinformatics is a cross-dresser discipline if ever there was one,” said Bruno Sobral, director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute. “There’s genomics, proteomics, pharmacogenomics, metabolomics, every day there’s a new omics.”

He said one of the best definitions of bioinformatics comes from German theoretical biologists of the last century who said it is “the quest to mathematically describe the human organism.”

“Right now we can barely describe three or four complete reactions, but I think this is the moon shot in biology,” he said.

“We need biogrids to compute these mathematical descriptions and to predict the behavior and performance” of genes, proteins, chemical compounds and so on, he said.

Because data in the “omics” is doubling faster than computer processing speed, aggregating the power of many computers through a BioGrid may be the only way to store, analyze and develop applications from the information, he said.

“It’s about sharing”

He summed up the purpose of the BioGrid simply: “It’s about sharing information and if you can’t share, you’re not going to be able to solve problems on this scale,” he said.

Other speakers explained how the Grid could advance life sciences research in the state, from aiding the Fungal Genomics Lab at NC State University to allowing researchers to use advanced scientific instruments via “telescience.”

In the next 12 to 18 months, MCNC officials said, the Genomics Consortium study groups will evaluate how to fund the BioGrid, software and hardware considerations, and develop a prototype test-bed BioGrid.

In November last year, MCNC announced an alliance with IBM to develop the test bed BioGrid. IBM is providing one of its most powerful servers, the eServer p690, which features self-healing technologies that help provide uninterrupted operation even through power outages.

IBM will also provide a high-end storage server and manager to support a storage area network that can hold a petabyte of data, equivalent to one billion books of 400 pages each.

The company’s Discovery Link data integration technology will allow researchers to integrate data from many different sources, formats and types.

Phil Emer, hired this month as the BioGrid architect, said much of the early planning is “funding related.” Currently, MCNC and the NC Biotechnology Center fund Consortium activities, including BioGrid development. Both are state supported.

Emer said he foresees numerous opportunities to apply for government grants. “At some point, we won’t be able to live entirely on grants,” he admitted, but said at this point the Consortium is not sure where it will get additional money.