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Interview with Derek Burke, Regional Manager at WekaIO

Derek Burke has sixteen years’ experience in scale-out computing, introducing new technologies across Europe. He has previously held the VP for Industry position for the ETP4HPC, a public/private partnership advising the European Commission on its high performance computing strategy. We caught up with him at the Festival of Genomics and BioData in January. 

FLG: Can you introduce yourself and the work you do?

My name is Derek Burke, I am the regional manager for WekaIO here in the UK. I am responsible for engaging with our customers and prospects around our high-performance data storage solution.
If you do not know WekaIO, we provide the world’s fastest file system for artificial intelligence and scientific research.

FLG: What motivated you to pursue a career in this field?

I started in information technology around thirty years ago and, at that time, the genomics field was more about laboratories and pipettes than IT. Today, however, the genomics field has massive amounts of digital DNA data that is being used for research purposes.

As an IT professional working for a data storage company, it’s interesting because genomics organisations have challenges handling huge amounts of digital data that we can solve – and being able to address these challenges contributes to scientific progress which is extremely gratifying.

It is particularly interesting to watch the advancements in genomics and how they are impacting people’s lives.

FLG: Why do you think we are seeing such a huge growth in the amount of data available?

In terms of genomics data, the cost to sequence DNA has dropped dramatically. At the same time, the ability to compute massive amounts of data has increased with the advent of very fast processors and accelerator technology like FPGAs and GPUs. These factors are combined with new software applications or processing frameworks that have evolved, like machine learning, where the  accuracy of results is increased with larger amounts of data. We now have the ability to process data and extract insights from large data sets much faster than ever before.

FLG: Are there any challenges that come along with storing these huge amounts of data?

Yes, there are tremendous challenges. We anticipate that by 2025 there will be around 40 exabytes of human genomics data alone.

There are massive challenges to store and preserve that amount of data in a cost-effective manner. But, we also have to feed the data to high performance compute systems in a performant way so that we can process and gain insights from it. These are exactly the challenges that WekaIO solves. For example, our customer Genomics England plans to scale its WekaIO solution to 140 petabytes whilst providing fast access to that data for a myriad of researchers. WekaIO is providing 10x the performance of Genomics England’s previous solution and is scalable to exabytes of capacity at a fraction of the cost.

FLG: So, what do you think is the most exciting thing happening in genomics right now?

The most exciting thing in Genomics, certainly from an IT perspective, is around accelerated analytics (including artificial intelligence/machine learning) and the ability to very quickly turn physical samples into meaningful results. This was showcased recently by Oxford Nanopore and Nvidia. Focused on increasing the yields of cassava crops in Africa, they illustrated the ability to take physical samples of a crop, process the DNA data locally and deliver insights within hours. This increased one farmer’s crop yield from zero to thirty-five tonnes per hectare. The process from taking the sample to delivering insight was just a few hours, whereas previously it took over 6 months which was too long to save an infected crop.

This technology is now being fast-tracked to help fight against viruses such as Ebola, SARS and now COVID-19. These are advancements that are really impacting human lives and are very exciting.

FLG: Do you see any major breakthroughs that can happen in the future?

There is a lot of excitement and investment in precision medicine. Combined with the ability to sequence DNA and deliver insights in hours, we can envisage a near-future where patients are diagnosed and accurate treatment is provided in a highly efficient way. It’s a game-changer for healthcare.

FLG: Why have you decided to participate at the Festival of Genomics this year?

We decided to participate at the Festival of Genomics because the data storage solution that WekaIO provides uniquely addresses the data capacity and performance challenges of genomics organisations. Through our partnership with NVIDIA (an investor in WekaIO), WekaIO is a key technology enabler for the future of genomics.



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