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Accunet Adds NCI Data Center to its Life Science Roster


By Kevin Davies 

September 5, 2012 | For the past 15 years, IT systems integrator Accunet has been steadily expanding its business, pushing out from its Boston roots and working with an impressive roster of life science organizations, which make up about 50% of the firm’s total business.   

Company CEO Alan Dumas hopes his success in building several marquee partnerships up and down the East Coast, including one just announced with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to build a new datacenter at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNL) in Frederick, Maryland, will help fuel that drive westwards.  

 Alan Dumas 
Alan Dumas 
Dumas says Accunet’s strengths are in customer service, an end-to-end technical partnership model, project management and ongoing support. “We are very consultative,” he says. Strategic partners include EMC/Isilon, VMware, CommVault, McAfee and Cisco, but Accunet is vendor neutral and will recommend the best solution for the job at hand.   

The move into life sciences paralleled a desire to diversify on the storage side, which is when the company formed a relationship with Isilon Systems (now part of EMC). ”They weren’t well known,” Dumas recalls, “but were making a major impact in media and entertainment. We made the decision to partner with Isilon because they were addressing the challenges with unstructured data… Traditional solutions from NetApp, IBM, and the like did not handle big data to the level these [life science organizations] were producing it. Isilon’s solution was groundbreaking in that area.”  

Accunet helped introduce Isilon to the Broad Institute’s IT team at the Bio-IT World Conference in 2007, while sharing a booth with Isilon. “They took a chance to test an Isilon cluster in their environment. The evaluation had its challenges, but where other solutions broke down under the immense amount of data being generated, Isilon bent, but never broke! Our engineers were in there hand-in-hand, honing the process and focusing on making the integration work.”  

Dumas says that first storage project with the Broad gave Accunet “credibility in the life science space,” but Accunet’s partnership with them and other life science organizations goes beyond storage into areas such as security, network infrastructure and virtualization.   

Dumas estimates Accunet currently has some 30-40 life science organizations as clients, including the Koch Institute at MIT, Biogen Idec, Children’s Hospital of Boston, Foundation Medicine, Whitehead Institute, University of Connecticut, The Jackson Laboratory, and beyond New England, Pfizer, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory , Emory University in Atlanta, and institutes run by Scripps and Max Plank in Florida.   

Need for IT  

Accunet’s latest partnership with the NCI was a very different situation to the Broad engagement. “The RFP [request for proposals] for their new data center [at FNL] was an open specification and it was up to the integrators to determine the best solution for their environment,” says Dumas.   

Having outgrown its existing datacenter at the SAIC-operated Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, the NCI put out an RFP in early 2011. Accunet’s mid-Atlantic account manager Ken Johnson says they had concluded that their mixture of aging IT platforms weren’t adequate for the data deluge represented by next-generation sequencing and plans for expanded access.  

Accunet submitted a 300-page dossier, one of only two companies offering an end-to-end solution. (Accunet has worked with federal organizations before, including the Centers for Disease Control and NASA.) One attractive aspect of the proposal, Johnson believes, was that it involved no increases in IT staff, given ongoing budgetary concerns. “We designed and implemented a solution that worked seamlessly, from network infrastructure to storage to virtualization,” says Johnson.  

After two successful oral presentations, Accunet was awarded the $15-million contract in August 2011. The next four months were spent refining designs and holding regular meetings with NCI officials. The center became operational in June.  

Accunet was given a blank slate to build the entire data center. “We walked into a room without heating, data and cooling racks,” says Johnson. “We provided a comprehensive and scalable backbone for their next-gen computing needs, including fabric, switching and routing, a new storage platform they hadn’t used, wireless, virtualization, data optimization, and the built-in flexibility to move to a private, public or [likely] hybrid cloud model once that part of their strategy evolves.”  

The new platform is also very flexible, he says, especially on the storage side. Part of the project included updating some of the aging equipment in the original datacenter. The legacy data is being moved to different parts of the architecture so that it doesn’t tie up resources.  

So far, the reviews are positive. The FNL’s gleaming new data center “will enable us to keep pace with the escalating amounts of biomedical data that our scientists work with every day,” commented Greg Warth, IT operations director at SAIC-Frederick, the principal contractor for FNL.  

Keeping it Simple  

As far as the selection of specific vendors and technologies goes, Johnson says, “We wanted to keep it simple to ensure ongoing maintainability.”   

EMC/Isilon was the anchor for the project, says Johnson, “the focal point for big data.” During the early design meetings, NCI staff requested that a storage cluster be installed before the project officially began. That took place in October 2011, enabling NCI staff to gain familiarity with Isilon storage in the original datacenter, long before the new one went online. The original plan called for 2 Petabytes (PB) but the datacenter is already approaching 3 PB.  

Strategic partner Cisco was selected not only for its fabric technology, but also for its new UCS (Unified Computing System) platform for servers and VoIP (Voice over IP) as well as wireless networking. This was a bit of a stretch, admits Johnson. NCI was more familiar with HP and IBM, but Accunet engineers felt UCS was the most robust solution, even though Cisco was unable to supply a reference in the high-performance computing environment.   

“We stuck with it [and told them] this is the direction you want to go in. It has worked out very well,” says Johnson.  

Other vendors selected included EMC Core VNX storage for the SAN; VMware for virtualization; and CommVault for data management. “This allows storage administrators to track when files are stored, where they are stored, how many times they are touched, and to create policies that can move [data] from tier to tier,” explains Accunet engineer Andrew Boggs. “You can have a higher-performance tier, and once that data ages, it can be moved from tier 2 to tier 3. You can have Isilon or CommVault do that. If the data get really old, CommVault can move it off hard drive and onto tape and provides data de-duplication.”    

A challenge down the road will be managing the data as the volume grows even further. Boggs says Accunet would consider another EMC product, Greenplum, for some of that sophisticated indexing capability. Other industry trends Accunet engineers are tracking include cross-vendor integration and automation, although as far as storage goes, Dumas says “there will always be a shake-out, but we haven’t seen anything better than Isilon.”  

Accunet hopes engagements with organizations like NCI will help springboard them to deals with other life science organizations across the country, but the pace of that expansion will depend in part on the ability to grow the engineering team. “Our biggest challenge is trying to expand with more good people with extensive cross-platform expertise – it’s the people,” says Dumas.  

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