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Big data, but are we ready?


We welcome the timely Review by Schadt et al. (Computational solutions to large-scale data management and analysis. Nature Rev. Genet. 11, 647–657 (2010))1, which presents cloud and heterogeneous computing as solutions for tackling large-scale and high-dimensional data sets. These technologies have been around for years, raising the question: why are they not used more often in bioinformatics? The answer is that, apart from introducing complexity, they quickly break down when a large amount of data is communicated between computing nodes.

In their Review, Schadt and colleagues state that computational analysis in biology is high-dimensional, and predict that petabytes, even exabytes, of data will be soon stored and analysed. We agree with this predicted scenario and illustrate, through a simple calculation, how suitable current computational technologies really are for such large volumes of data.

Currently, it takes minimally 9 hours for each of 1,000 cloud nodes to process 500 GB, at a cost of US$3,000 (500 GB to 500 TB of total data). The bottleneck in this process is the input/output (IO) hardware that links data storage to the calculation node (Fig. 1). All nodes are idle for long periods, waiting for data to arrive from storage; shipping the data on a hard disk to the data storage would not resolve this bottleneck. We estimate that 1,000 cloud nodes each processing 1 petabyte (1 petabyte to 1 exabyte of total data) would take 2 years, and cost $6,000,000.

Figure 1: Input/output bottleneck between data storage and calculation node.
figure 1

In our calculations, 1,000 computational nodes each processing 500 GB would take 9 hours (at a rate of 15 MB/s) using large nodes at US$0.34/h. The total cost for a single analysis run would be 1,000 × 9 × 0.34 = $3,060. In reality, throughput will be lower because of competition for access to data storage caused by parallel processing. There are significant throughput instability and abnormal delay variations, even when the network is lightly utilized12. In the illustrated example, 1,000 cloud nodes each processing a petabyte would take 750 days (at 15 MB/s) and cost 1,000 × 750 × 24 × 0.34 = $6,120,000. Figure created using the Open Clip Art Library (

A less expensive option would be to use heterogeneous computing, in which graphics processing units (GPUs) are used to boost speed. A similar calculation shows, however, that GPUs are idle 98% of the time when processing 500 GB of data. GPU performance rapidly degrades when large volumes of data are communicated, even with state-of-the-art disk arrays. Furthermore, GPUs are vector processors that are suitable for a subset of computational problems only.

Which is the best way forward? Computer systems that provide fast access to petabytes of data will be essential. Because high-dimensional large data sets exacerbate IO issues, the future lies in developing highly parallelized IO using the shortest possible path between storage and central processing units (CPUs). Examples of this trend are Oracle Exadata2 and IBM Netezza3, which offer parallelized exabyte analysis by providing CPUs on the storage itself. Another trend for improving speed is the integration of photonics and electronics4,5.

To fully exploit the parallelization of computation, bioinformaticians will also have to adopt new programming languages, tools and practices, because writing correct software for concurrent processing that is efficient and scalable is difficult6,7. The popular R programming language, for example, has only limited support for writing parallelized software (see, for example, Ref. 8). However, other languages9,10 can make parallel programming easier by, for example, abstracting threads11 and shared memory7.

So, not only do cloud and heterogeneous computing suffer from severe hardware bottlenecks, they also introduce (unwanted) software complexity. It is our opinion that large multi-CPU computers are the preferred choice for handling big data. Future machines will integrate CPUs, vector processors and random access memory (RAM) with parallel high-speed interconnections to optimize raw processor performance. Our calculations show that for petabyte- to exabyte-sized high-dimensional data, bioinformatics will require unprecedented fast storage and IO to perform calculations within an acceptable time frame.


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The authors are grateful for support by European Union grants FP7 PANACEA 222936, FP7 EURATRANS 241504 and cost action SYSGENET BM0901.

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Correspondence to Ritsert C. Jansen.

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Trelles, O., Prins, P., Snir, M. et al. Big data, but are we ready?. Nat Rev Genet 12, 224 (2011).

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