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Intel delves into life sciences

The chip giant has created an internal group devoted to developing technology for the life sciences market, one of the remaining hot areas in the computer world.

Intel has created an internal group devoted to developing technology for the life sciences market, one of the remaining hot areas in the computer world.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker said this week that it is working with universities, software developers and server manufacturers to come up with supercomputer-class systems, built around Intel technology, for pharmaceutical engineering, genetic research and other biotech projects, said Rick Herrmann, Intel's manager for worldwide high-performance computing.

"There seems to be a rush toward building out the infrastructure around life sciences," Hermann said. "Every country in the world is looking for bioinformatics to be the next technology pillar: Singapore...Taiwan...the U.S. Even Ireland is looking at it."

Although most corporations have kept a firm lid on technology spending, bioscience companies continue to invest heavily, banking on the promise that the uncoiling of the human genetic map will lead to medical breakthroughs.

The bioscience industry will account for $1.1 billion in high-performance computer sales this year, up from $850 million last year, according to Michael Swenson, a senior research analyst in the life-sciences practice at research company IDC.

"We're expecting double-digit growth for a while," Swenson said.

Nearly every major server maker has been building up capabilities for this market. In September, IBM entered into an alliance with Applera to create and comarket services and systems targeted at the life sciences industry. Applera consists of two companies: Celera Genomics, the company that first mapped the human genome and now specializes in pharmaceutical design, and Applied Biosystems.

Dell Computer has also announced major development efforts with universities. The Austin, Texas-based company and SUNY Buffalo (The University at Buffalo, the State University of New York) installed a cluster of 2,008 Dell PowerEdge servers running Red Hat Linux, one of the largest deployments of its kind in the world.

Privately, though, some executives have viewed the growth projections with caution. Historically, the market has had its ups and downs.

Intel catches up
While biosciences companies for years relied on RISC/Unix servers, Intel-based servers have been catching up rapidly in terms of performance, especially when clustered together. A cluster of Xeon servers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is fifth on the list of the 500 most powerful supercomputers, which was released this week. Generally, Intel-based machines also cost less than servers containing Alpha chips from Hewlett-Packard or servers from Sun Microsystems.

The software base has also migrated to the Intel world. Several of the major tools and applications--such as BLAST (basic local alignment search tool), used for comparing gene sequences--run well on clusters of Intel machines, said Scott Farrand, vice president of system engineering at RLX, which specializes in selling blade server clusters. The growing popularity of Linux, one of the more popular operating systems for Intel servers, helps as well.

"A lot of the code (in bioinformatics research) is developed on Linux," said IDC's Swenson.

Intel's life sciences group, which is headed by company veteran Tim Mattson, is part of the chipmaker's high-performance computing (HPC) group, which concentrates on building Intel's presence in high-end markets, such as financial services and entertainment.

Primarily, the group seeks to seed research projects and efforts to commercialize products. Intel is currently funding biotech-related research at Harvard, Duke, Yale and the University of North Carolina and has made venture capital investments in various companies, such as distributed computing specialist United Devices, with technology that could be deployed in the market.

In addition to server technology, Intel is also examining other aspects of the biotech market. The company, for instance, has completed its first microfluidic chip, a device used to scan medical samples. Last month, fellow chipmaker STMicroelectronics revealed a prototype chip that can replicate and examine DNA samples, a process that currently requires a host of lab equipment.

Intel would not state how many people work in the life sciences group, but a representative said there were hundreds of employees in the HPC group.