Neuroscientists test IT team at Queensland Brain Institute

Genomics research generates 72 terabytes per row per genome, says IT manager

The IT team at the Queensland Brain Institute has to race to keep up with the technology demands of the research organisation’s neuroscientists, according to QBI senior IT manager, Jake Carroll.

QBI is “trying to discover the fundamental mechanisms that regulate brain function,” Carroll said.

Researchers are looking at a variety of areas related to the brain, including dementia and mental illness, he said.

Talking to Computerworld Australia at the Dell Enterprise Forum in Melbourne, Carroll described a vicious cycle that leads to ever-increasing demands on ICT infrastructure.

When a scientist starts using a new scientific instrument for their research, there is often “a huge knock-on effect on ICT and technology infrastructure,” Carroll said. That forces the IT team to make upgrades to the system to support the tool, he said.

However, when IT brings in more powerful infrastructure intended to provide a little breathing room, the scientists “get addicted to it and then it snowballs,” creating new problems for IT, he said.

Adding to the challenge is a constrained budget. “There’s been definitely a cooling in research as there has been on the whole [university] sector, and we’ve been faced with a lot of challenges to do more with less.”

QBI’s major IT pain points include data storage, compute cycles and bandwidth, Carroll said. “We struggled for a long time to provide timely access to data, or shift huge data around in ways that is non-disruptive to the rest of the division.”

The IT systems serve about 400 people, “which doesn’t seem like an enormous organisation, but 400 neuroscientists, many of which have computational capability or bioinformatics skills, can really make a mess.”

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Research related to genomics, a discipline in genetics that includes genetic mapping and looks at DNA sequences for common traits, puts the biggest crush on QBI’s IT systems, Carroll said. “We can generate at least 72 terabytes per row per genome.”

Carroll estimated that the maximum lifespan of any ICT kit at QBI is four years. Storage systems have the shortest life, he said.

“It’s not because the gear dies or that it’s no longer functional or useful. It’s that at that point to maintain that gear becomes untenable or onerous…”

Carroll said that having Dell as a strategic partner has made it easy to scale ICT infrastructure as needed. In particular, a modular high-performance computing storage system has allowed QBI to extend the life of its gear, he said.

Carroll said he believes that Dell’s recent deal to take the vendor private will enable Dell to move as quickly as QBI needs it to.

“I need a company that’s really quite agile,” Carroll said. “I need [the vendor] to move with the technology that I need to push. So if a crazy new scientific instrument comes along, I need crazy new technology to encompass it.”

Carroll added that he needs a vendor that will work closely with QBI to provide the right support. “Privatisation helps in that respect.”

While QBI gets superfast networking via the AARNet, Carroll said the NBN “might be useful when we’re transferring data between different associates who are not necessarily on academic research networks.”

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t have equal access to AARNet. There are plenty of organisations out there who are crying out for more bandwidth for their researchers.”

Carroll wants to see the NBN Co keep its current fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) plan. If that approach remains, “I believe there will be far more equal opportunity.”

Adam Bender travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Dell.

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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