By Salvatore Salamone
June 15, 2003 | Ford Prefect, the intergalactic traveler in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, observed that earthlings spend most of their time moving things back and forth within a few miles of the planet surface. If Prefect were watching life science IT managers, he would note that they spend most of their time moving data back and forth throughout their companies.
In every phase of drug development, managers must find ways to transport lots of data. But how do they do that intelligently? With no uniform solutions, IT departments are trying a slew of approaches to give users access to data and the applications that manage, analyze, or visualize them.
Tower of power: Tower-Stream broadband service beams from an antenna atop Boston's Prudential Center.
The bevy of potential solutions has two general themes. First, the solutions must be cost-effective, finding better ways to utilize existing, expensive communications links that connect employees, customers, and business partners. Second, more efficient use of communications must be balanced against the need to maintain a certain level of application performance.
Consider a data connection between a biotech and the outside world. A T1 line offers 1.54 Mbps of bandwidth. Many companies will use multiple T1 lines to provide Internet access and to carry traffic between corporate sites.
When Infinity Pharmaceuticals was designing its IT infrastructure last year, the company embarked upon a nontraditional strategy for its internal network (see "Working in a Wireless World," page 1). It also adopted a nontraditional approach for its wide area network.
Infinity's challenge in specifying its WAN was to accommodate occasional surges in traffic. One obvious solution is to expand the infrastructure to support the peak load, but this is not cost-effective, as the network is underused most of the time.
At Infinity, says CIO Andrew Palmer, "Storage demand grows 100 percent quarterly." The company stores digital images of biological plates. "Today, our storage area network has 3.4 TB of usable storage, about 5.9 TB of raw capacity," Palmer says. As most Infinity staff work in one facility in Cambridge, Mass., the company does not have to provide shared access to its entire database on a regular basis. Even so, data need to be moved over its WAN connection. "For a company our size, with about 100 people, about 3 Mbps [two T1 lines] is normal," says Jarrett Goetz, Infinity's manager of information infrastructure. "But sometimes we need more capacity."
Infinity chose a broadband wireless service from TowerStream as its primary connection to the outside world (with a T1 as backup). "With this service, we can burst to 10 Mbps," Goetz says. "All it takes is a phone call, and we can dial up and dial down the bandwidth."
It's a highly economical approach. Regular T1 lines may cost from $800 to about $1,200 per month. So two T1s could cost more than $2,000 per month. TowerStream delivers the same capacity for about $500 per month.
TowerStream charges extra for additional capacity based on time of use and bandwidth. A full 6 Mbps (the equivalent of four T1 lines) costs $1,950 per month. That translates to annual savings of around $30,000 or more compared to an equivalent traditional T1 service, and it includes the ability to throttle up the bandwidth to 10 Mbps when needed. However, TowerStream offers service in only a handful of cities in the Northeast, and other on-demand bandwidth services are scarce.
In the absence of flexible bandwidth services, the Tacoma Radiation Oncology Center, which conducts clinical trials and performs radiation treatments using linear accelerators, decided to try something completely different. It has three sites linked by T1 lines, which support the center's scheduling, billing, and Internet traffic. The T1 lines also let physicians retrieve CT scan images so that they can view them at any of the three sites. However, due to unpredictable bursts of traffic clogging WAN links between these sites, the application used to run the linear accelerator sessions would crash repeatedly.
The center uses a radiation therapy system from IMPAC Medical Systems that follows a physician's plan of treatment and instructs the linear accelerator to administer radiation. "It's a computer-driven system that moves lead shielding into place to safeguard healthy tissue and cells and delivers radiation to a [specific] location," says Steve Bader, chief operation officer at the Tacoma center. "It's very time-sensitive."
A function within the system called "record and verify" ensures safe administration of the therapy. "We'd run into problems with the record-and-verify function, and the system would time out," Bader recalls. Patients were not in any danger, but it significantly lengthened the treatment sessions. "We'd have frequent interruptions of the system," he says. Most frustrating of all, the outages were unpredictable.
|Improving Data Access
|Life science IT departments are resorting to a variety of techniques, including providing redundant paths and managing bandwidth resources, to improve data access.
The IMPAC disruptions were ultimately traced to the transfer of diagnostic imagery between offices. "We don't have much transfer, but there's some, and depending on how many image sheets go over the network, we'd have trouble," Bader says.
"Given the critical nature of the application, we thought about getting separate T1 lines for IMPAC," he says. But doubling the number of T1 lines to six would double the costs. "Plus, we'd need routers and all that other equipment to support the additional lines."
IMPAC, aware of other customers experiencing similar disruption problems, turned to Packeteer, which makes a bandwidth-management tool called PacketShaper. It's a traffic shaper — a tool that lets a manager designate how much bandwidth to allot to specific applications. In the Tacoma case, the IT staff could allocate enough of a T1 line to ensure the IMPAC system ran smoothly.
Allocating bandwidth for time-sensitive traffic affects the transfer of image files. "Instead of taking a minute, it might take two minutes to get a sheet of film," Bader says. "It's more critical to treat the patients than to transfer the files."
Many network equipment vendors, such as Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies, and Nortel Networks, offer tools that compare to PacketShaper. While bandwidth reservation is not commonly used, signs are it is increasingly being adopted.
At a recent networking symposium in New York City, a network administrator (who requested anonymity) said: "We're just starting to deploy Web services to make it easier for our own users to access applications and databases. We think some applications will need bandwidth set aside to run properly. We don't think we're alone."
For that reason, bandwidth-management tools could play a larger role in helping companies get better performance out of their existing networks.
Wireless broadband access and bandwidth-management tools are relatively new ways to handle data more intelligently. But in times of need, even old ideas get re-evaluated. Data compression is a good example. In the old days, before the Internet boom, 56Kbps Frame Relay was the dominant service used by businesses to connect their offices. A mere five years ago, data compression was often used on these 56Kbps lines for passing large amounts of traffic. But as T1 lines and other high-speed services (DSL, broadband) became more common, interest in compression waned.
But today's economic climate and the need to move more raw data have led to renewed interest in compression. According to a recent NetsEdge Research Group study, data compression is "getting a new look." Last year, businesses spent between $27 million and $33 million on data-compression products to improve application performance without increasing the capacity of their network connections. NetsEdge says two firms — Expand Networks and Peribit Networks — dominate the data-compression market. Other vendors, including Cisco and Packeteer, are likely to become more active in this market by year's end.
One reason for renewed interest in data compression is that many companies are experiencing performance problems in critical applications, similar to the Tacoma Oncology Center.
For example, animal healthcare company IDEXX Laboratories noticed that a bar code reading application used in its warehouse to track products and shipments had slowed to a point where the response time was about 20 seconds. The problem was caused by medical images being sent over the company's backbone network. Rather than spend an extra $3,000 per month to expand WAN link capacity, IDEXX deployed a data-compression product called Sequence Reducer from Peribit Networks. This reduced traffic running over the company's WAN links by about 60 percent, halving the bar code reading response time from 20 seconds to less than 10 seconds.
As most life science companies know, the increasing volume and file sizes of data traveling over their networks carry with them a serious risk of compromising a key application's performance. While the first solution may be to throw bandwidth at the problem, in today's tight economic climate, several more intelligent data-handling solutions can improve application performance — while not breaking the bandwidth budget.
Earthlings, including IT managers, will always be moving things back and forth. By dynamically adjusting bandwidth and applying tools like traffic shapers, IT departments can make sure users have quick access to the things they need.
PHOTO OF PRUDENTIAL BUILDING BY JIM BOURG/REUTERS