By Salvatore Salamone
June 15, 2003 | Sometimes it pays to start from scratch. When Infinity Pharmaceuticals was designing its IT infrastructure, the young company took advantage of the unique opportunity that creating a network affords. It decided to go totally wireless. While a radical departure from traditional corporate networks, the solution may offer a glimpse into the future of drug discovery technology. The company expects the system to enable more collaboration between its scientists, and make it easier to collect and structure data from experiments.
The Infinity setup includes 100-percent wireless network access for all employees, extensive use of electronic lab notebooks, voice over IP (VoIP) phones, “soft” phones that run on laptops, and a variable-speed wireless broadband connection to the outside world.
Shared knowledge and capturing information are key ingredients in the company’s strategy. That's where the wireless network comes into play.
"We promote openness and collaboration," says Andrew Palmer, Infinity's CIO. "All scientists share information by using electronic lab notebooks." (Use of electronic lab notebooks is a condition of employment set down by Michael Foley, Infinity's vice president of chemical technologies.)
While it's still too early to tell if all this technology wizardry will help make Infinity a success, to date interest is high in the company's scientific developments (see Conquering Infinity with Chemical Genetics, Feb. 2003 Bio-IT World, page 48). And last year, at a time when funding was sharply curtailed due to terrible economic conditions, investors ponied up $70 million.
Palmer notes that Infinity scientists spend from one-third to one-half of their time in the lab. With no wireless network in place, "it would be too easy for them to put stuff on paper," he says.
With the wireless network, "scientists don't have workstations in the lab," says Jarrett Goetz, Infinity's manager of information infrastructure. "Their desks [in the form of a Dell Computer laptop with a wireless adapter card] move with them."
This allows researchers to enter information about their experiments as they are conducted. "In 1 ½ years, we already have thousands of pages of structured data in e-notebooks that otherwise would be locked up in paper notebooks," Palmer says.
Birth of A Network
When architecting its network, Infinity had one great advantage. "We had a shell, we had nothing, we tried to do it right from the start," Goetz says. "We looked at wired, wireless, phones, everything."
Goetz notes that he had one guiding principle. "We tried to find tools that would make employees as productive as possible." The only initial constraint, he says, was "we thought a single vendor would be best for the entire network infrastructure. And voice over IP started to play into our plans as we got further along in the early design stages."
As the company started considering wireless technology, it was uncertain as to which of the standards -- 802.11a, b, or g -- to adopt.
Goetz started a wireless pilot project last July when the company was in a temporary office in a nearby building in Cambridge. The pilot had four access points and about 25 users. The program used the widely available 802.11b technology (802.11a was not then available). "But 'b' wasn't fast enough," Palmer says. "With the electronic lab notebooks, some scientists move lots of image files." As the pilot progressed, 802.11a products, which offer higher data transfer rates than “b,” started to become available.
Infinity ran the wireless pilot using Cisco Systems' Aironet 1200 access point products. "We went with Cisco because its access points support different standards," Goetz says. “With the Aironet 1200, you replace the antenna and radio to switch between different wireless standards."
Goetz picked 802.11a for the corporate network in the new building. The choice of “a” was not difficult, even though at the time no other company in New England was operating an 802.11a network, according to Palmer. In the future, he notes, "If we want to go with 802.11g, we could run both 802.11a and g in a single access point."
Infinity chose 802.11a because of its higher performance -- performance deemed necessary to support the electronic lab notebooks' transfer of image files. And there was the issue of interference: 802.11b uses a frequency band (2.4GHz) that is shared with many common electronic devices, such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, some cell phones, and other wireless gadgets.
Goetz noted that given the location of the Infinity office -- less than 100 feet from new townhouses -- "there'll soon be eight kitchens next door with eight microwaves."
Currently, Infinity has 22 access points spread over three floors, providing the company's roughly 100 employees with wireless connection to the corporate network.
The End Result
All Infinity scientists use Dell D series laptops to conduct their work. The laptops have either a 2.2GHz or 2.4GHz Mobile Intel Pentium 4 Processor M, which offers some power management features to conserve battery life.
"We've got people moving all over the building with their laptops," Goetz says. For that reason, Goetz is also interested in Intel's Centrino technology for its promise of improved power management capabilities. (Centrino also provides built-in wireless LAN capability.)
All the phones in the company use VoIP. Essentially, the desktop phones are terminals. When a user sits at a desk, he or she logs in and that person's calls are routed to that location. A user can also forward calls to a soft-phone application, which runs on a laptop and turns it into a phone. Any calls to that user's extension are directed to the laptop no matter where the user is in the building -- even to a remote location if the user is connected to the company network through a virtual private network (VPN). Scientists can take their phones into the lab, which reduces the need for lab bench phones and conserves space.
Infinity’s network data center includes Cisco VPN concentrators, Cisco Catalyst 4000 switches (which support both VoIP and data traffic), a Cisco storage area network, storage devices from 3PARdata, and Dell servers running Linux.
Palmer and Goetz say deploying the wireless network was less expensive than building a comparable wired network. "Wireless saved us, conservatively, 27 percent to 33 percent," Goetz says. "That's compared to building out a wired network, including the costs to pull wires to each desktop." All told, Infinity spent less than $500,000 on its entire network infrastructure (including the phones).
And operational costs are lower. For example, the combination of wireless laptops and VoIP phones greatly simplifies matters when a new employee is hired. In a wired network, an IT manager would have to configure the exact LAN switch port that corresponds to the new employee's ethernet wall jack. And a phone switch would need to be similarly configured. The wireless LAN connectivity and the VoIP system eliminate these tasks.
One concern with the wireless infrastructure is security. Currently, 802.11 networks are secured with the Wired Equivalent Protocol (WEP), which is not considered robust enough for many corporate applications.
Infinity did not want to divulge all the details about its security systems, but Goetz says the company relies on multiple levels of security, including a VPN, IP Security (IPSec), and Cisco's Extensible Authentication Protocol, called EAP-Cisco Wireless. Infinity also took to wireless in another way: The company connects to the outside world using a variable-rate wireless service from TowerStream. The connection, which is provided through an antenna on top of the Prudential building in Boston, provides 3 Mbps of bandwidth that can be throttled up to 10 Mbps, when needed, with a quick phone call. Infinity uses a traditional T1 line as an emergency backup to the TowerStream service.
Infinity expects its untethered infrastructure will give it a leg up on competitors. Its scientists will be more productive, the company believes, and the technology will enable more collaboration, while also making it easier to capture information into a knowledge management database.