Amazon’s Cloud Computing Service Sees Opportunity in Genomic Data Overload

7/6/10Follow @xconomy

The future of biology, if Amazon has its way, will be in the cloud.

The Seattle-based online retailer (NASDAQ: AMZN) has generated buzz the past few years with its foray into cloud computing through Amazon Web Services. This is the model in which customers rent server space on a pay-as-you-go basis, and get access to their data anytime via the Internet. It’s supposed to allow small businesses, governments, and anybody else to save cash and hassles by not having to buy and maintain their own in-house servers. The model is credited with enabling a new generation of lean tech startups to build businesses using far less capital.

Biological researchers haven’t embraced the new model as quickly as their tech brethren, but the cloud computing wave is coming to life sciences, says one of Amazon’s biotech liaisons, Deepak Singh. The trend is coming out of necessity. Gene sequencing has been on a breakneck pace of innovation over the past few years, as instrument makers like San Diego-based Illumina and Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies have lowered the cost of sequencing an entire human genome to as little as $10,000. Upstarts like Mountain View, CA-based Complete Genomics seek to sequence entire genomes for as little as $5,000, while a rival, Pacific Biosciences, is aiming to sequence genomes in 15 minutes. Since every human genome has 6 billion chemical units of DNA, this faster and cheaper form of sequencing is creating enormous datasets that somebody will need to store, analyze, compare, and visualize. Without that capability, it’s just a vast pile of data that doesn’t really lead to valuable new insights for medicine.

Computing challenges have become a “serious blocker” to people trying to make sense of the genomic wave, Singh says. And Amazon has made it a high priority over the past couple years to become the company that stores genomic data in a cheaper and more accessible way for researchers. Customers, Singh says, “have started looking at the cloud very seriously as a possible option. Over the last year or so, that curiosity has turned into serious adoption.”

Amazon‘s pay-as-you-go, rented server model has attracted partners and customers all over the country. The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA, is a user, along with Harvard Medical School. Life Technologies, an instrument maker, and Seattle-based Geospiza, a bioinformatics software company, have a partnership to use Amazon’s servers to store genomic data. Palo Alto, CA-based DNAnexus, an intriguing bioinformatics startup, has built its business model around using Amazon Web Services. And one of the leading evangelists for cloud computing in genomic research is C. Titus Brown, a computer science and microbiology professor at Michigan State University, who is teaching students how to use Amazon Web Services to store the data for their experiments.

Precisely how important this is to Amazon, a company with $24.5 billion in revenue in 2009, is hard to say. In keeping with Amazon’s close-to-the-vest culture, Singh would only offer vague adjectives when I asked for specifics on the number of customers, the percentage of Amazon Web Services business that comes from life sciences customers, the number of employees devoted to this effort, and the size of the market that Amazon ultimately sees for cloud computing services in life sciences.

There are still major barriers to be cleared before … Next Page »

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