Delivering the “genomic dream” in the NHS will need abundant energy, massive high performance computing power and the technical know how.
Earlier this month, Professor Dame Sally Davies, the UK government’s Chief Medical Officer, set out a goal for the next five years to use a “technology [that] has the potential to change medicine forever”, to make genome sequencing as standard as blood tests and biopsies.
The cost of sequencing the first human genome was over 100 million US dollars. While it has got easier since then, it is still very costly. A huge proportion of that lies in the cost of high performance computing (HPC) needed to analyse the massive amounts of data behind this. In other words, delivering the computing power to meet Sally Davies’ vision is achievable, but it is still a big and expensive ask. Achieving it will mean sourcing:
1. A phenomenal amount of ring-fenced power capacity, ideally from sustainable sources to ensure any genomic sequencing revolution doesn’t negatively impact the UK’s carbon footprint.
2. A specialist HPC ecosystem with the capacity and technical know-how.
The UK falls at the first hurdle. With just 4% spare capacity in the national grid this year (down from 17% just six years ago), the supply is neither reliable or scalable. Just last year the Institute of Mechanical Engineers said: “The UK is facing an electricity supply crisis. Closure of UK coal and nuclear plants will create an electricity supply gap of up to 55% by 2025. The UK has neither the time, resources nor enough people with the right skills to build sufficient gas-fired or nuclear power stations to plug the gap.”
As a result of this, UK energy costs are much higher than elsewhere in the world. Recent uncertainty around the future of the “risky and expensive” Hinkley Point development only compounds the UK’s energy problems.
In contrast to the UK’s dwindling 4% spare capacity margin, Iceland enjoys a power surplus of over 90% due to its enormous reserves of renewable energy, and small population. Plus, because of Iceland’s northerly latitude it enjoys cool summers and mild winters meaning intensive computer servers can be cooled by 100% free, ambient air - maximising power efficiency. Together, this is why Iceland’s power costs are approximately 70% lower than in the UK.
In simple cash terms a suitable HPC platform power-bill in the UK will cost £2.6 million/annum compared to £750k/annum in Iceland (based on a 2MW load). This significant saving will allow the NHS to concentrate their funds on genomic sequencing across the general population, rather than paying a huge electricity bill to the power companies.
Perfect for HPC, Iceland truly offers the kind of abundant, efficient and scalable energy profile that could provide the necessary ”grunt” behind the Chief Medical Officer’s vision. This is especially so as data centers such as Verne Global in Iceland are easily accessible through the existing National Research Education Network (NREN), a specialised internet service provider dedicated to supporting the research and education communities. Through NREN providers Janet and NORDUnet UK research, science and academic organisations can seamlessly connect directly to Verne Global’s expansive data center campus.
One example of this approach is Earlham Institute, a leading UK research organisation focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology. Earlham Institute needed large amounts of HPC for its work sequencing the wheat genome. The solution for Earlham Institute was to select Verne Global and Iceland.
Dr Timothy Stitt, Head of Scientific Computing at Earlham Institute, said of the partnership: “I hope the impact of our collaboration with Verne Global will be the catalyst for many more academic institutions in the UK and Europe to consider migrating their computing infrastructures to Iceland and benefit from one of the world’s most reliable and cost-effective green energy resources. I’m very proud that Earlham Institute is at the forefront of this shift”
Iceland was voted the world’s safest location for a data center, obtaining first place (lowest risk) out of 37 nations in the 2016 Data Center Risk Index, published by Cushman & Wakefield. This report considers ten variables including energy cost, connectivity, ease of doing business, level of corporate tax and political stability.