First-time exhibitor Tycrid aims GPU technology at bioinformatics market

insideHPC sat down with Chris Heier, president of Tycrid Platform Technologies, a first-time SC09 exhibitor based in Canada, to learn more about their purpose built GPU-based solutions and their focus on the Bioinformatics space.

insideHPC: First of all Chris, welcome to SC09. It’s great to see so many first-time exhibitors — including Tycrid of course. Why don’t we start off with some background for our readers. When was Tycrid founded and why? What opportunity did the founders see that brought you to this particular solution?

Tycrid CEO Chris HeierChris Heier: Tim Davies, our co-founder, and myself founded Tycrid in September of 2007. Our backgrounds over the past seven years of working together have been in synthetic aperture imaging and real-time seismic image processing. Working in technical disciplines like these, you find really quickly that there are major limitations in normal computing architectures. Not enough processing power, bandwidth, etc. We had developed some pretty innovative solutions around FPGAs, but these came with the issues of time and expertise required to utilize them.

We decided to do something that we thought would be really cool — attempt to build the most powerful workstation in the world. For years prior to incorporating our business, we had looked deeply into GPU computing, working with companies like PeakStream (now owned by Google), as well as Rapidmind to push into multi-GPU computing. It was difficult at the time, and utilizing multiple GPUs seemed to be very difficult from an end-user perspective. Fast forward to CUDA when the GeForce 8 series rolled out, and suddenly multi-GPU started to look very feasible and seamless to end users.

We had built a workstation using 6 GPUs, originally GeForce, but eventually moved to Tesla. It was tough at first as the BIOS we were working with would fail to boot with more than 4 GPUs, but time and effort prevailed. When we got it working, we had benchmarked with VMD, and had a 58x speedup over what would have been considered a top of the line workstation at the time.

I guess as a summary, we started the company with the desire to bring technology to market that could have a significant impact on scientific discovery. With myself liking fast hardware, and Tim being involved with some of the most computationally intensive sciences, we saw this as a great opportunity to not just supply researchers, but to collaborate with them for the advancement of science. We saw the GPU as a technology that could make this a reality — in an acceptable timeframe.

insideHPC: So is that still your direction, or how has that vision changed over the past year?

Heier: There has definitely been some change in how we intend to move forward. Narrowing our focus has really been the big thing. On one hand, you have a great technology that can be applied to so many things, and on the other, a team that has many great ideas as to how to use it.

Bioinformatics is an area where we feel this technology can really have a positive impact. It is a research area that I believe has true potential in making a big difference in the world. Genomics in particular is where I really see some fantastic new science coming into play. GPU based computing platforms will have a big impact in shaping the future of genomics.

Moving forward, our vision is to build the right team, and develop the right purpose built appliances to establish Tycrid as the leading custom solutions provider in this domain.

insideHPC: So, here in the final months of 2009, this industry seems to have GPU fever. I have to ask you this one: Is Tycrid just one of many new companies trying to find a niche for GPU-based computing?

Heier: No. While we are one of the few companies that decided to focus solely on GPU computing, it is still simply selling commodity hardware. We have the skills to put together some very innovative solutions, but when more well-established companies are getting heavily involved in the space, it doesn’t make sense for us to be just another GPU company.

Our focus is what sets us apart. I love hardware. Always will. But there is really a bigger problem. Anyone can make and sell commodity hardware. Few companies really make it easy for the potential end customer, and even fewer wish to take the initiative to advance science in a very specific direction. We’re not simply talking about hardware anymore, but a complete philosophy that drives everything we do at Tycrid. By developing a strong community with a singular goal, I feel that we can begin to intimately understand the needs of the genomics community, and really create something truly unique that solves many of the domain challenges in the upcoming future.

We see GPUs as being the next evolution in computing technology, a disruptive force, that will allow for the enablement of upcoming science that needs to happen. In genomics, sequencers are going to be coming online that process the genome at unprecedented speeds. The GPU has provided a great opportunity to begin to meet these future demands.

insideHPC: What is Tycrid doing that other companies are not doing with the Tesla GPU? And will your strategy keep you tightly aligned with Nvidia?

Heier: What we are choosing not to do is to take the easy way out. Selling white boxes and trying to be everything to everyone. That is not our game. It is also an approach that I see as counterintuitive to what actually needs to be happening. NVIDIA is doing an excellent job in really pushing GPUs as a computational engine, and that is something that we have been on-board with before CUDA. Without them, I don’t think the landscape on accelerator technologies would be as intriguing as it is today. It is truly a disruptive technology.

Our strategy moving forward is 80% collaboration and 20% integration. By collaborating closely with the research community, we can better serve their needs with a purpose built turnkey solution. Our focus on the genomics sector is critical. There is simply too much that needs to be done, and not enough of a collective effort to drive the development of a proper solution to address the future market need. It’s more of a long term strategy, but I believe the efforts we put in to making this a reality will pay off in the end.

insideHPC: How long has Tycrid been shipping systems — and who are some of your customers?

Heier: We started shipping systems earlier this year. We have about a dozen systems installed at some leading research and academic institutions, but at this time, we are not at liberty to discuss the applications they have been working on. I can say that throughout the next year, we will begin the development of a truly revolutionary platform that will be available on the CANARIE research network. There are also several very exciting collaborations we will be entering into for applications porting and algorithm development.

insideHPC: So what is the next big thing for Tycrid?

Heier: We have quite a few activities and milestones coming up this next year so I think I can confidently say you will be hearing quite a bit about us in 2010. I’m very excited about our founding role in the Prometheus Alliance which was just announced this past week. The Alliance is something I truly feel will evolve into something else. Seriously. I’m a young guy, and being able to spearhead an alliance as important as I believe Prometheus will be is something I will always look back on with pride. It is something that has to happen, and now is the right time to make it happen. There are just so many great things happening in genomics that will affect all of our lives for the better, and the alliance will be the vehicle to drive the innovation needed to make these things happen.

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