Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Road Made Longer by Doubt

In 2003 I joined the IBM Grid & Virtualization team as the lead architect for Healthcare in the Americas. As a part of Systems Technology Group our job was to evangelize grid computing and virtualization technologies. We helped early adopters move further faster investing time and money to learn and have an impact. As the harbinger of new technologies we met LOTS of skepticism and dobut. Funny enough, just about everyone is moving that direction now, many having given up their chance at innovation by adopting the technologies first in their industries. Oh well. If I had a dime for every bad business decision about technology I've witnessed in 15+ years of consulting I'd be retired to my own island.

In 2003 grid computing was synonymous with high performance computing, a boundary we worked tirelessly to break down because it was arbritrary at best. In this endeavor I upgraded one of my computers to the latest Nvidia card, a company I have followed for years one because of its technology and two because two of its executives went to the same small engineering college I attended. When I researched the specs and looked at the calculations, and compared those to what a medical research institution was attepmting, I realized the video GPU had much more to offer than the general purpose CPU. I talked to a few fellow IBM'ers who agreed and had been looking at such uses for a few months. Getting my facts together I approached my client to propose we do some joint research into the use of the GPU for the calcuations.

Cost? Zero. I had funding in "blue money" ready to go. Delays? Zero. We had a functioning system but it was resource constrained. Receptiveness of my client. Also zero. No appetite.

The world has moved on and Nvidia has stayed its course now designing a new GPU architecture specifically to advance high throughput computing. It's a great idea, especially considering Nvidia's past architecture has enabled the sharing of resources across four video cards. Impressive to say the least!

I wonder who, beyond Oak Ridge, will bite. More so, I wonder how much faster we could have advanced important causes such as research into pharmacogenomics and protein folding if we had adopted this technology earlier. I have to believe it would have expedited the development, ultimately leading us to the same place but sooner. I don't know about you, but I'm interested in an AIDS vaccine and a cure for cancer BEFORE I die. I'm sure others are too. Isn't there a moral imperative that says research centers should be, perhaps, researching? I found they do as long as the topics aren't too politically sensitive. And for whatever reason the idea we presented was a political landmine. Too many people would have to agree. Too many people would have to approve. It would take too long. There was no guarantee.

Yes. But there is no guarantee in Research, or did I miss something.

Too bad for all the people for whom the vaccine arrives 1min later than needed; and to those whom it could have saved had it come to market on the earliest possible path instead of the one easiest to navigate. I guess that's why I left R&D after my internship in college and never wanted to go back (although I've been dragged, reluctantly, back through the halls of R&D a few times). R&D to me is all promise with very little delivery. Guess that's why we do so little in the United States these days. I didn't realize the reason for poor delivery was because researchers were afraid to do....uh....research.

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