Robarts Research Institute chooses SGI technology to enable advanced medical simulation for minimally invasive surgery

London 14 February 2006To further its mission to minimize invasive surgery Robarts Research Institute, Canada's only independent centre for medical research, recently installed high-performance visualization technology from Silicon Graphics as well as SGI InfiniteStorage and Visual Area Networking systems. For minimally invasive surgery simulation and modelling Robarts focuses on brain, prostate, breast and heart surgery. Minimally invasive procedures decrease trauma to the patient and thereby reduce recovery time, serious complications or death, the length of hospital stays and the total cost of surgery. In addition to the installed Silicon Graphics Prism visualization system, Robarts has just purchased an SGI Altix high-performance computing system to complement its research in image-guided surgery and therapy, including the treatment and surgery for cancer.


The Institute also purchased an SGI four-pipe graphics upgrade for its Virtual Augmentation and Simulation for Surgery and Therapy (VASST) programme, which is focused on the creation of a suite of advanced technologies. One of the immediate goals is the creation of a "virtual surgical environment", a detailed computer model that researchers can use to develop minimally invasive procedures and evaluate alternative strategies. This approach will eliminate the restrictions that accompany testing with living subjects and reduce reliance on costly and time-consuming trials with animal or human subjects. The programme will ultimately lead to enhanced tools that can be used for surgical planning and in the operating room (OR) during surgery.

"Achieving these goals requires an ability to compute and present results to a surgeon in real time", stated Dr. Terry Peters, scientist and principal investigator at Robarts Research Institute. "For instance, the visualization that results from Robarts' beating-heart model must be synchronized with ultrasound images and presented to the surgeon with no delay to be of benefit in the OR. Generating visual results in real time requires exceptional hardware and software capabilities. We selected SGI because of its proven leadership in medical imaging and performance that beat the competition. Just as important, the Linux architecture of the SGI Altix platform integrates well with our existing Linux desktop environment. Code developed on desktop systems is easily portable to our SGI system, so we are able to use our existing code in the SGI environment without a big porting effort."

Robarts will soon be installing an SGI Altix 3700 Bx2 supercomputer with 64 Intel Itanium 2 processors with 64GB of memory for a variety of research and development projects. Robarts currently deploys a Silicon Graphics Prism visualization system with 24 Intel Itanium 2 processors running the Linux environment, four ATI FireGL graphics processing units (GPUs), and 28GB of global shared memory. Leveraging the same shared-memory architecture as the SGI Altix platform, Silicon Graphics Prism adds advanced graphics to its proven capabilities.

"The multiple GPUs on our Silicon Graphics Prism system will give us the dynamic volume rendering capability needed to visualize an entire complex data set such as our beating-heart model both in the lab and in the OR", added Dr. Peters. "Surgeons can change views and interact with the model in real time. Different pipes can be assigned different tasks to increase graphics performance. For instance, one pipe might image the locations of surgical instruments and probes which can be composited with output from another graphics pipe displaying the output of the beating-heart model registered to ultrasound from the patient."

Robarts is also adding SGI Visual Area Networking (VAN) capability. Using SGI OpenGL Vizserver software, VAN extends the benefits of advanced visualization across local and wide area networks, delivering visual information where it's needed. VAN clients require no graphics acceleration, so almost any system can display advanced graphics. VAN supports a variety of compression mechanisms to facilitate visualization over slower transports.

Using VAN, a surgeon developing a new technique with the help of Robarts virtual environment can collaborate with other surgeons in different locations; all surgeons share the same view of the model. Naturally, VAN can be used to bring the output of Robarts' Silicon Graphics Prism system to the operating room. When the Institute starts testing its image-guided surgical tools, VAN will be used to transmit the output of applications from the VASST computer laboratory to operating rooms and laboratories in the next building.

Achieving real-time results also requires a state-of-the-art storage infrastructure. To meet the growing storage needs of its busy research centres, Robarts chose an SGI InfiniteStorage solution capable of delivering data where and when it's needed while providing an economical and readily expandable storage pool.

To deliver shared data across many different computing platforms, the SGI VAN solution deployed at Robarts is based on SGI InfiniteStorage Shared Filesystem CXFS and provides exceptional bandwidth over a Fibre Channel SAN. A separate SGI Altix 350 system is deployed as a metadata server for CXFS, co-ordinating data access between heterogeneous CXFS clients. CXFS clients read and write data directly across the SAN at the full bandwidth of 2Gb/sec Fibre Channel.

A Fibre Channel RAID solution provides storage, coupled with 7TB of economical SATA disk storage. To manage migration between the two pools, Data Lifecycle Management (DLM) software from SGI is used. The active data set is stored on Fibre Channel RAID for maximum performance. When data is no longer being used, it is automatically migrated to SATA storage by SGI InfiniteStorage Data Migration Facility (DMF) software based on rules defined by Robarts. Whenever a file stored in the SATA pool is accessed, it is automatically recalled to the active storage pool. The result is a large pool of on-line storage with the performance and capacity needed to meet the needs of the entire VASST effort, but at a fraction of the cost of Fibre Channel disk.

"Continued advancements in surgical techniques to reduce the invasiveness of surgery offer potentially substantial benefits to the patient and the entire health care system, but this requires improved visualization techniques that are scalable to users needs", stated Afshad Mistri, senior manager of advanced visualization and medical imaging, SGI. "Silicon Graphics Prism systems deliver industry-leading performance for medical visualization applications with an advanced parallel system architecture, with scalable compute and graphics sub-systems, and exceptional bandwidth to memory, graphics, and storage."

Celebrating 20 years of discovery in 2006, Robarts Research Institute is a non-profit medical research facility in London, Ontario, with more than 600 people working to investigate some of the most debilitating diseases of our time, from heart disease and stroke to diabetes, Alzheimer's and many forms of cancer. The Institute's key strengths lie in advanced medical imaging, cellular and molecular biology, genomics and immunology. Its interdisciplinary approach is unique in Canada with physicians and physicists, biologists and biomedical engineers all working under one roof, with collaborations extending to 20 countries worldwide. The Institute has filed more than 80 patents, secured 15 licensing agreements, and launched eight spin-off companies. Robarts is independently governed and funded but maintains many research and clinical affiliations with local partners, The University of Western Ontario and London Health Sciences Centre.

More news on collaboration between Robarts Research Institute and SGI is available in the VMW September 2004 article SGI server and storage solutions help Robarts Research Institute create 3D models of functioning human organs.

Leslie Versweyveld

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