Working on the pharma-IT railroad

FRAMINGHAM (10/21/2003) - Pharmaceutical giants have a well-earned reputation for paranoia. They protect the corporate castle with moats filled with lawyers whose sharp-penciled maneuverings make informal collaborations impossible. This month, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals initiates a modest effort to counter this tradition -- at least with regard to IT evaluation.

The US$14-billion biomedical conglomerate has invited four-person, Massachusetts-based bio-IT consulting firm The BioTeam Inc. to set up an IT benchmarking lab in a small 12x15-foot office on the fifth floor of Wyeth's department of genomics, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.

Wyeth will provide space, electrical power, cooling, and Internet access. In return, BioTeam will share what it learns. No money changes hands. It's an innovative stab at solving a problem all drug makers face -- staying abreast of IT without diverting needed resources.

"My group simply doesn't have the ability to do that," says John Morris, manager of bioinformatics at the department of genomics. "We must constantly strike a balance between researching the technology and running operations. A lot of small vendors, as well as big vendors, provide BioTeam with equipment, so we can actually learn from their experience in running the lab."

Thus far, the effort is modest. Only one BioTeam member -- Chris Dagdigian, a former Wyeth bioinformatics employee -- will have unrestricted access to the room. His colleagues have passed Wyeth's standard background check and will be granted access during normal business hours. Dagdigian must also inform Morris about the equipment coming into the facility to be tested.

"We won't tell Chris what to do, but there will be some restrictions," Morris says. "For example, they won't be able to have a 30-amp data center, and we've physically separated their systems from ours. We also don't take any responsibility for the hardware."

Among the many topics on Morris' hit list: Linux performance and migration, new processor capabilities, blade strengths and weaknesses, new open-source software, Apple Computer Inc.'s G5 platform, and symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) tradeoffs versus clusters.


Dagdigian's past connection to Wyeth made the unusual collaboration possible. He worked at Genetics Institute when it was acquired by Wyeth, and actually designed many of the systems now running at Wyeth.

"I've worked with 'Dag' since '96," says Steve Howes, Wyeth's director of bioinformatics. "When he moved on to Blackstone (Computing) and then The BioTeam, we maintained a close relationship." Dagdigian is a founder of The Bioperl Project and a director of the Open Bioinformatics Foundation. "We've supported his efforts, and Wyeth has even hosted some of those Web sites," Howes says.

"They remember me coming in at all hours to keep servers running. There's definitely a comfort factor there," Dagdigian says. "We talked about a barter of services for the space, but in the end decided it was too complicated. This way, it's a clean relationship, and we've committed to not conducting any work for other clients here."

Convincing other BioTeam clients that the Wyeth arrangement isn't too cozy may prove challenging. BioTeam does have a project to help Wyeth plan a "refresh" of its IT systems. (Wyeth has a heavy reliance on Unix and is looking at other options.) Both insist the refresh assignment is separate from the space-for-knowledge deal.

One fascinating aspect of the collaboration is Wyeth's expectation that learning will occur informally. Morris says, "The stipulation is we learn what they learn, but not how we do that. It could be over beers or at a meeting. We think it will be by osmosis." Dagdigian agrees: "There's a lot of benefit to having proximity between IT types."

Neither party will put a dollar value on the effort. "We have an abundance of space," Morris simply says.

Currently, the IT lab is empty. Efforts to "sanitize" or insulate the room from Wyeth systems are complete. Now, Dagdigian and colleagues must fill it with equipment. He's already mapped out a project to examine new IDE RAID cards, which can drive upwards of a terabyte of storage, as well as plans to test specific system imagers and intelligent power strip solutions. A benchmarking tool for computers using AMD's Opteron chip is also in the cards.

Says Morris: "We're still working out some of the details, such as, who does the equipment get sent to -- Wyeth or BioTeam? The power and cooling capacity is too small for really large systems. A lot of vendors are basically delivering full racks -- that's kind of the standard unit -- and we can accommodate that. They're not doing entire clusters."

BioTeam says it hopes to churn out technology comparisons and perhaps benchmarking tools it can make freely available over its Web site. Morris says he will review the arrangement in a year, but is optimistic. He likens the collaboration to railroad building in the 1800s: "It took two groups working together to build the railroads: one that surveyed the landscape and another to actually build the railroads. BioTeam is surveying the IT landscape. We're building."

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