Case Study: MRC Cognition of Brain Sciences Unit (CBU)

EMC Isilon and S3 help prestigious research unit focus on advancing neuroscience and healthcare.

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EMC Isilon and S3 help prestigious research unit focus on advancing neuroscience and healthcare.



Medical research and imaging

Company size

160 scientists

Business challenges

  • HSM and tape archiving environment was time- consuming to manage
  • Tape locking issues caused downtime


  • EMC Isilon NL-Series storage
  • EMC Isilon InsightIQ, SmartConnect, SnapshotIQ, and SyncIQ
  • fMRI and MEG images and data, MATLAB data analysis, SPM
  • Independent advisory services and proof-of-concept services provided by S3


The Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (CBU) in Cambridge, England, has close ties to the University of Cambridge and brings together one of the largest concentrations of cognitive scientists and neuroscientists in the world with the goal of advancing human health.

Business Challenges

The Unit’s research scientists use magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to scan and study brain activity. These brain scans produce neuroimages and large amounts of data for analysis.

To access digital images and data, researchers previously used a hierarchical storage management (HSM) system with archiving to two tape libraries. Not only was the HSM system with tape libraries cumbersome to manage, but it also caused downtime when tapes would lock, which meant restarting the tape library and the computing clusters.

When it was time for a planned upgrade, the Unit considered EMC® Isilon® scale-out NAS, NetApp, and Dell storage products. The organisation chose Isilon after receiving independent advisory services from Solid State Solutions (S3), a value-added storage integrator of data storage and storage management systems. S3, an EMC channel partner, also led the successful proof of concept of the Isilon system.

Robert Anthony, the CBU’s IT manager, says,

“One of the pros about Isilon is that it’s unbelievably simple to set up. When we did the proof of concept, the sales engineer plugged it in and we were up and running with a base configuration in half an hour. It took another vendor two days to get their system running.”


S3’s experienced team of Isilon experts recommended a combination of Isilon solutions that would efficiently meet all of the Unit’s requirements.

The Unit initially installed two five-node Isilon NL-Series clusters. Using EMC Isilon SyncIQ® asynchronous replication, an Isilon cluster in Cambridge is replicated to a second Islion cluster at a disaster recovery site.

The Isilon system now supplies 780 terabytes of storage capacity for brain images and scientific data generated by the Unit’s high-performance computing (HPC) cluster. Data analysis and research applications running on the HPC cluster include MATLAB and SPM (statistical parametric mapping).

In addition, the organisation uses other Isilon infrastructure software, including InsightIQ™ performance monitoring and management, SmartConnect™ resource optimisation, and SnapshotIQ™ data protection.

Storage of Scientific Data Vital to Research

In a typical neuroimaging study, participants volunteer for brain imaging captured by an fMRI or MEG scanner. A research scientist presents study participants with a stimulus, such as a picture, and asks them to perform a task, such as thinking about what they see. The scanner then captures images that show how the brain responds.

Images are sent from the scanner to a DICOM (Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine) gateway that writes them to Isilon. These digital brain images and the associated data analyses are essential assets for the Unit’s researchers.

Professor Richard Henson, Deputy Director of the CBU, says,

“We’re involved in many major collaborative research projects that depend on brain imaging and data-intensive analyses to help better understand how people’s brains enable their memories, their language, their decisions, etc. Such projects also help show how these cognitive abilities are affected by brain changes associated with, for example, healthy aging and neurodegenerative disease. This research benefits enormously from the fast and easy data access provided by Isilon.”

Simple Management Frees Administration Time

Now that scientific data is stored on Isilon, the Unit’s IT staff no longer spends time managing tape backups and restores, and has regained many hours previously devoted to storage administration and troubleshooting.

Robert Anthony explains,

“A huge advantage of Isilon scale-out storage is that it’s very easy to manage, turns out great performance, and is rock solid. When the Isilon equipment arrived in boxes, it was installed in our racks at both sites by 2:00 p.m. the same day by the S3 engineers. Then, after the second day, both systems had been commissioned and were ready for data migration from the old system.”

Efficient administration with Isilon gives IT more time for efforts that help accelerate research. For example, Isilon freed time for IT to implement a more powerful high-performance computing cluster that the researchers use to analyse data.

“Uptime also massively improved since we installed Isilon,” adds Robert Anthony. “So that makes everyone more productive—both IT and the 200 researchers that tap into Isilon regularly.

Isilon Software Increases Efficiency

The Unit uses Isilon SmartConnect software to load balance connections between its HPC cluster and Isilon. Robert Anthony appreciates that SmartConnect automatically balances I/O workload across Isilon storage nodes, which contributes to performance in the compute-intensive research environment. Both the IT staff and research scientists benefit from using Isilon SnapshotIQ for data protection.

“SnapshotIQ has been superb,” says Robert Anthony. “Users can easily find an accidentally deleted or overwritten file in a snapshot folder and retrieve it in seconds. And in most cases, IT doesn’t even get involved.”

More Uptime Helps Researchers

Isilon provides consistent uptime that lets the researchers’ investigations go on without interruption. Robert Anthony notes,

“The previous storage system was problematic because we’d run into issues with tapes that would lock and we’d have to do a reboot. Isilon has given us much more uptime.

“When everything is working for our researchers, they’re designing what they want. And we’ve done Isilon software updates without problems. It just works.”

Scalability Support Neuroscience

The Unit’s Isilon storage has expanded as the scientists continue to amass more images and more data. Upgrades have been non-intrusive.

Robert Anthony is a fan of the scale-out abilities that come from having CPU, memory, and interconnects as part of each Isilon storage node.

“Our plan was to provide easy growth with additional Isilon nodes,” Robert Anthony says. “Otherwise you end up with additional storage silos. You can install a node while the Isilon system stays online and then it grows the file system, with no disruption to the user.”

The Unit has added three nodes of Isilon storage to expand each cluster since the initial deployment, an amount that will continue to grow as its research scientists gather more images and data to advance understanding of human cognition and the brain.

MRC Cognition of Brain Sciences Unit (CBU)

  • MRC CBU Case Study

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