Jan 12 2014
Genome sequencing is no longer a luxury available only to large genome centers. Recent advancements in next generation sequencing (NGS) technologies and the reduction in cost per genome have democratized access to these technologies to highly diverse research groups. However, limited access to computational infrastructure, high quality bioinformatics software, and personnel skilled to operate the tools remain a challenge. A reasonable solution to this challenge includes user-friendly software-as-a-service running on a cloud infrastructure. There are numerous articles and blogs on advantages and disadvantages of scientific cloud computing. Without repeating the messages from those articles, here I want to capture the lessons learned from our own experience as a small bioinformatics team supporting the genome analysis needs of a medical center using cloud-based resources.
Why should a scientist care about the cloud?
Reason 1: On-demand computing (such as that offered by cloud resources) can accelerate scientific discovery at low costs. According to Ian Foster, Director of the Computation Institute at the University of Chicago, 42 percent of a federally funded PI’s time is spent on the administrative burden of research including data management. This involves collecting, storing, annotating, indexing, analyzing, sharing and archiving data relevant to their project. At ICBI, we strive to relieve investigators of this data management burden so they can focus on “doing science.” The elastic nature of the cloud allows us to invest as much or as little up front for data storage. We work with sequencing vendors to directly move data to the cloud avoiding damaged hard drives and manual backups. We have taken advantage of Amazon’s Glacier data storage that enables storage of less-frequently used data at ~10 percent of the cost of regular storage. We have optimized our analysis pipelines to convert raw sequence reads from fastq files to BAM files to VCF in 30 minutes for exome sequences using a single large compute instance on AWS with benchmarks at 12 hrs and 5 hrs per sample for whole genome sequencing and RNA sequencing, respectively.
Reason 2: Most of us are not the Broad, BGI or Sanger, says Chris Dagdigian of BioTeam, who is also the co-founder of the BioPerl project. These large genome centers operate multiple megawatt data centers and have dozens of petabytes of scientific data under their management. The rest of the 99 percent of us thankfully deal in much smaller scales of a few thousand terabytes, and thus manage to muddle through using cloud-based or local enterprise IT resources. This model puts datasets such as 1000 genomes, TCGA, UK 10K, etc. in the fingertips (literally a click away) of a lone scientist sitting in front of his/her computer with a web browser. At ICBI we see the cloud as a powerful shared computing environment, especially when groups are geographically dispersed. The cloud environment offers readily available reference genomes, datasets and tools. To our research collaborators, we make available public datasets such as TCGA, dbGAP studies, and NCBI annotations among others. Scientists no longer need to download, transfer, and organize other useful reference datasets to help generate hypotheses specific to their research.
Reason 3: Nothing inspires innovation in the scientific community more than large federal funding opportunities. NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K), NCI’s Cancer Cloud Pilot and NSF’s BIG Data Science and Engineering programs are just a few of many programs that support the research community’s innovative and economical uses for the cloud to accelerate scientific discovery. These opportunities will enhance access to data from federally funded projects, innovate to increase compute efficiency and scalability, accelerate bioinformatics tool development, and above all, serve researchers with limited or no high performance computing access.
So, what’s the flip side? We have found that scientists must be cautious while selecting the right cloud (or other IT) solution for their needs, and several key factors must be considered. Access to large datasets from the cloud will require adequate network bandwidth to transfer data. Tools that run well on local computing resources may have to be re-engineered for the cloud. For example, in our own work involving exome and RNAseq data, we configured Galaxy NGS tools to take advantage of Amazon cloud resources. While economy of scale is touted as an advantage of cloud-based data management solutions, it can actually turn out to be very expensive to pull data out of the cloud. Appropriate security policies need to be put in place, especially when handling patient data on the cloud. Above all, if the larger scientific community is to fully embrace cloud-based tools, cloud projects must be engineered for end users, hiding all the complexities of the operations of data storage and computes.
My prediction for 2014 is that we will definitely see an increase in biomedical applications of the cloud. This will include usage expansions on both public (e.g. Amazon cloud) and private (e.g. U. Chicago’s Bionimbus) clouds. On that note, I wish you all a very happy new year and happy computing!
Let’s continue the conversation – find me on e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @subhamadhavan