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Cancer center builds Texas-sized cloud

MD Anderson Cancer Center builds an HP-based private cloud to handle cancer research

By , Network World
April 04, 2011 12:07 AM ET

Network World - As researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center work at "making cancer history," they're doing so with the help of compute power and storage capacity from a private cloud. 

Public cloud vs. private cloud: Why not both?

But this is no ordinary cloud.

After all, when you're researching something as complex as the human genome you tend to think big, and MD Anderson's cloud reflects that type of ambition and scale. We're talking 8,000 processors and a half-dozen shared "large memory machines" with hundreds of terabytes of data storage attached, says Lynn Vogel, vice president and CIO of MD Anderson, in Houston.

A different path

And while MD Anderson's general server infrastructure uses virtualization, the typical foundational technology for cloud, this specialized research environment doesn't. Rather, the organization uses an AMD-based HP high-performance computing (HPC) cluster to underpin the research cloud.

"We're currently implementing the largest high-performance computing environment in the world devoted exclusively to cancer," says Vogel, who was recently named Premier 100 IT Leader honoree by our sister publication, Computerworld.

The data and processing capacity are available to the MD Anderson cancer researchers as needed, whether they're sequencing human genomes or investigating radiation physics, epidemiology, dosing calculations for radiation therapy or running simulations for clinical trial activities. About three dozen principal investigators, who each have anywhere from two to 10 assistants, regularly tap into the research cloud, Vogel says.

To access the cloud, they use a service oriented architecture-based Web portal called ResearchStation.

Dr. Lynn Vogel

"When you look at the classic definition of cloud computing as enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned and released, that's in fact how we're approaching our environment," Vogel says.

Enterprise Cloud Services: The agenda

However, he notes, the MD Anderson cloud doesn't currently have a chargeback mechanism - an oft-cited but, at this point, little used cloud attribute. "We don't require a chargeback mechanism because we manage demand largely by a peer review process. The actual determination of priority for using resources is driven by clinicians and researchers themselves, not by IT people," Vogel says.

What this means, he adds, is that he never needs to plead a case for, say, more storage. "They're the ones going to executive management, saying, 'You really have to increase the capacity of this capability or that capability for us to continue to do our work and maintain our rating as one of the top cancer centers in the world," Vogel explains.

More, more, more

In addition, MD Anderson doesn't experience the typical up and down spikes in usage that other enterprises might encounter.

"We find that both the clinicians and researchers in the field of medicine have what I would label 'an insatiable demand' for computing resources, and the demand curve just keeps going up," Vogel says.

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