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By John Russell

July 14, 2004 | GEORGE MORRIS swipes his security card to unlock the door to his office and mutters something about the Swiss obsession for security. It's a minor inconvenience in a dream job to install the IT systems that will allow NIBR scientists to innovate and communicate with maximum efficiency.

Most brand buying decisions will be made by the end of this year, Morris says. His big concern is retaining flexibility: "The things we've assumed [in making decisions] are usually correct for the first 90 days, and then new requirements come in. We're taking a flexible approach so that we can quickly scale up technology or remove technology pretty readily. We don't want to get fixed or locked in to any particular architecture we'll regret."

At NIBR, PCs predominate, but Macs aren't prohibited and Morris expects there will be plenty in labs. Network bandwidth is generally not a problem — an OC12 line connects Cambridge with Hanover, N.J., and corporate IT services.

NINETY-DAY WINDOW: George Morris, COO of informatics, wants to ensure Novartis doesn't get locked in to a particular IT architecture.
To ensure Novartis stays ahead of the curve, Morris envisions close collaboration with MIT and other organizations in the "red zone" of his advanced computing center "for applications as well as technology. We look to get more involved with the open-source community. And it's an area to really experiment. I mean genuinely. When IBM or someone says, 'Here's the latest box we have,' we stick the box in there and try it in a quarantine-like fashion."

The true test will be how effectively researchers leverage this IT power to drive research. That will require supporting a huge assortment of application software and delivering applications and data to those who need them.

"I've really pushed to assemble the portfolio," Morris says. "We've had 'portfolio reviews' before, but this time we're really going to dimension it out — what is commercially derived, what is open source, what is truly custom. We'll use that knowledge to map what the right mix is. The right approach will probably vary depending on which discipline we support. The groups in chemistry have a different level of maturity and demand than the maturity or demands in biology or early discovery. We're really emphasizing the partnership with the new research groups."

Working closely with internal research groups is also necessary to support external collaborations. "We're trying to uncover those needs early so they are established with an informatics budget right from the get-go. There's nothing worse than having someone spend serious dollars on collaboration, forget the IT stuff, and come back to me and say, 'Hey George, we need your people to solve this.' And it's not in my budget plan."

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