With the increase in the seriousness and utility of what can be derived from genomics, getting the approach right has implications for all of us. BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT's Brian Runciman MBCS spoke to Nick Trigg and Rob Gill of Constellation Technologies, one of the finalists in the BCS IT Awards 2011, about their approach to addressing some of the issues raised by this.

The life sciences require very computer intensive applications. Demands in the testing environment have led some to set up in-house operations to address this need, but often these self-made server farms are unsupported.

This complication, taken in tandem with the fact that reducing time taken to develop a drug can reduce costs by £300 million because of better computer modelling, meaning less time being wasted at clinical trial end, has led to Constellation Technologies' cloud computing service.

‘This is a template for the future of big data computational modelling in the life science sector,’ says Nick Trigg, CEO of Constellation Technologies. 'Personalised medicine (using human genome data) promises much but depends on a robust and secure cloud computing platform to access large computing resources.

'Constellation's solution, developed for an alliance of major pharmaceutical companies, is the first to incorporate Linux and Windows applications on a security tested hybrid platform. Constellation leads a consortium of Microsoft, STFC and Active Web Solutions.‘

The project called for a secure online bioinformatics service for use by large pharmaceutical and small biotech companies to perform large scale genomic computer modelling a ‘bioinformatics service on the cloud’ with secure access to unlimited compute power and storage.

Data from a sequenced human genome is used to determine new targeted therapy treatments; i.e. medicines that work for one's own genome. Constellation's software as a service can turn large amounts of data into economically and socially important information with the potential to lead to life saving/enhancing medicines.

There are many challenging IT and bioscience innovations required to build a system that meets the needs of industry in this area:

  1. The need for extremely high security. Security of data and processing is of paramount importance for the pharmaceutical sector as they use highly sensitive commercial and patient data.
  2. The very large datasets in genomics. Even modest scale research programmes will have TeraBytes or even PetaBytes of data to manage.
  3. Large compute requirements. The applications sometimes require very large compute resources and often parallel processes.
  4. Novel applications. The field of genomics is new and the applications and tools are relatively new and hugely complex.
  5. Easy of use with scientific flexibility. Users want the ability flexibility to build their own workflows rather than have to accept a defined set of tools.

The system developed and delivered to the alliance by Constellation introduced innovative techniques and architectures to allow end-users to sign onto a secure service and use applications in either a Windows or a Linux environment from a simple drop down menu.

Another innovation is that it is a true cloud service. The system uses different cloud infrastructures depending on the specific needs of the application and the customer. The project gives the user secure access to a public ‘master’ genome database in a secure wrapper with which they could compare their own gene sequences. In addition to this, the user was able to run a choice of applications comparing their private data with the public data using either a Linux or an Azure platform.


Constellation Technologies is a UK based high technology start up using technology and expertise developed as part the UK's particle physics research programme. Based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories near Harwell, Oxfordshire, the company also uses, when necessary, technologies and expertise developed under the European particle physics programme at CERN, Geneva. Its clients include some of the largest pharmaceutical companies. The other consortium members are Microsoft, Active Web Solutions and STFC.

Microsoft's Azure cloud computing division (European division) joined the consortium because of the strength of the consortium's bioinformatics knowledge (provided by Constellation) and its ability to provide secure storage.

Active Web Solutions is a UK SME and a Microsoft partner. STFC is the UK's Research Council responsible for fundamental research into physics. It manages the UK's largest academic grid and has specific expertise in large data computing (>PBytes). The consortium was based entirely on UK skills and personnel and the consortium is still looking to work together on other projects.

Before this project, members of the Alliance were all very tentatively looking at cloud computing concerned that it was too complicated, too expensive and too insecure for their needs. The Constellation consortium delivered a service that answered most of their concerns and now individual companies are now beginning to purchase their own cloud computing projects.

This has opened the door to the UK and international life science research community to use large scale computer resources for their genomics research programmes. This should allow the whole industry to harness the information contained with the genome to improve standards of health and therapies; large and small companies alike. It has the potential of providing the market with a step change in productivity.

Constellation Technologies was a finalist in the BCS IT Awards Innovation and Entrepreneurship section.

BCS UK IT Industry Awards