Functional Big-Data Genomics

September 15, 2012 2:00 - 2:20 PM


High-throughput genomic sequencing is characterized by large diverse datasets and numerous analysis methods. It is normal for an individual bioinformatician to work with thousands of data files and employ hundreds of distinct computations during the course of a single project. This problem is magnified in "core facilities", which support multiple researchers working on diverse projects. Most investigators use ad hoc methods to manage this complexity with dire consequences: analyses frequently fail to meet the scientific mandate of reproducibility; improved analysis methods are often not considered because recomputing all downstream steps would be overwhelming; hard drives and CPUs are used sub-optimally; and, in some cases, raw data is lost.

We describe HITSCORE, an OCaml software stack that operates all computational aspects of the Genomics Core Facility at New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology. HITSCORE has been in production use for one year, and was implemented quickly by less than two programmers following design advice from several biologists. A simple domain specific language (DSL) enables generating type safe database bindings and GUI components, and greatly eases updates and migration of our data model. We found a multi-lingual stack too burdensome in a small team setting, and credit OCaml for fulfilling the needs of our full application stack. It has good database bindings, excels at encoding complex domain logic, and now allows construction of rich websites due to the Ocsigen web programming framework. Higher level libraries for distributed computing would be a welcome improvement.

The opportunity to build this system did not stem directly from any strength of functional programming or OCaml. It was necessary for a person with credibility amongst biologists to champion its development, and this credibility took several years to build. Rapid development appears to be the single most important factor in allaying doubts about using a lesser known language, and we will briefly describe our experiences in bringing OCaml to several high profile projects.

Ashish Agarwal

Ashish Agarwal received his PhD in the area of programming languages from Carnegie Mellon University. Since then, he has embedded himself amongst biologists, first at Yale and now at New York University, to learn intimately what their pain points are. He currently manages the computational core facility at New York University and runs multiple big-data genomics projects on an OCaml code base.


Ashish Agarwal [1,2], Sebastien Mondet [1], Paul Scheid [1], Aviv Madar [1], Richard Bonneau [1,2], Jane Carlton [1], Kristin C. Gunsalus [1]

  1. Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, Department of Biology, New York University
  2. Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University