Bristol-Myers Squibb Taps Grid Computing

By John McCormick Print this article Print

Project managers at Bristol-Myers Squibb think they can aggregate the processing power of thousands of under-utilized PCs—and save the drugmaker millions in the process.

You can't see it from the country road in western New Jersey, but in a brick building behind a dairy farm and across a corn field, a group of Bristol-Myers Squibb scientists and technology project managers are working on one of the largest "grid computing" systems in the world. And the system just might help the pharmaceutical giant boost profitability.

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Tapping the company's internal high-speed network and deploying a package from software vendor Platform Computing, the Bristol-Myers team went live in mid-August with a computing setup that taps the unused power of its personal computers already in use around the corporation.

Now, instead of running simulations of new drug compounds on expensive high-end computers, company scientists can route the same computations to the company's maze of desktops and laptops for processing.

In setting up the grid, the $19- billion-a-year drugmaker is overcoming minor technical irritants and Excedrin-sized management headaches. But the potential payoff is huge. Bristol-Myers believes it can increase its research department's computing power fivefold immediately and as much as a hundredfold over the next few years, as more personal computers are tapped.

"It gives us a massive increase in compute power," says Richard Vissa, an executive technology director in Bristol-Myers' pharmaceutical research group. "And it opens the door for our scientists to look at new algorithms and new approaches that they might not have considered before, because there just wasn't enough compute power."

That can lead to viable new drugs. After all, Bristol-Myers is looking for any help it can get. Like other big-name pharmaceutical companies, the company's profit margins are being pressured by generic drugmakers. At the end of October, Bristol-Myers reported third-quarter net earnings of $314 million—75% lower than in the year-ago quarter. Beyond that, the company said it would restate earnings, after an accounting review showed it had pushed too much unneeded product onto its distributors.

Unlike other computing techniques that also juggle simultaneous computing tasks—such as massively parallel processing schemes that employ powerful servers—the goal of grid computing is to harness the underutilized processors in personal computers. Generally speaking, the assumption is that the processor in a typical corporate desktop or laptop machine is only in use 5% to 20% of the day. The processor usually sits idle, while employees go to meetings, tend to non-computer-related tasks, and, of course, go home at the end of the workday. Such downtime seems downright wasteful when one considers that today's PCs have the same processing power that supercomputers did 10 or 15 years ago.

At Bristol-Myers, however, every PC processor tied into the grid is employed full time. Platform Computing's ActiveCluster package sits on a server, and schedules and allocates work to the company's Windows-based PCs based on machine availability and capability. The package also includes agents—installed on all the PCs in the grid—that send PC status reports back to the server.

Bristol-Myers and Platform will say only that the pharmaceutical company has so far hooked "thousands" of PCs to its grid, declining to be more specific.

"We believe there is a significant competitive advantage to doing [grid computing]," Vissa says.

Gartner Inc., a computer market research group, earlier this year began to urge clients with sizeable numbers of desktop computers to "explore the potential of this promising distributed computing technology."

And organizations from southern California's Pacific Life Insurance (one of the largest insurance firms in the country) to Princess Margaret Hospital (a teaching hospital in Toronto) are building PC grids.

Bristol-Myers, according to industry watchers, is probably the biggest company to embrace grid computing. But as the company and its vendor set out to deploy grid computing, they found few guideposts.

"We're all learning," says Platform's Chief Technology Officer Songnian Zhou. Bristol-Myers confronted issues ranging from software conversions to security to the larger, administrative challenges of setting new PC management protocols and convincing people to "share" their personal machines.

"It's a complex management challenge," says Robert Batchelder, a research director at Gartner.

This article was originally published on 2002-11-01
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