There is a life in the Cloud – Life Sciences take to the Cloud

Article by Karan Kirpalani



At a leading pharmaceutical manufacturing company recently, a researcher needed to perform mission-critical clinical analysis. He estimated that he needed 50 servers to complete the work, but the pharma major’s internal IT group told him that provisioning that much hardware would take at least three months. Faced with an untenable amount of lead time before his project went live, the researcher and his Project Tech lead instead chose to provision the identical server, network and storage infrastructure on the Cloud and managed to commence the project an astounding twenty four hours later.

With delays in bringing promising pharmaceutical projects to market costing an estimated $150 a second, the pharma major found a way to save their company millions rather than anxiously waiting for in-house computer resources to free up. It turnsout that in the example above, the company really needed 250 servers to handle the peak load of processing — not the 50 they had originally estimated — and using the Cloud allowed them to scale up quickly to handle processing peaks. The pharma major only had to pay for the actual processing time – the actual number of hours they used the servers they had provisioned – not the whole set up and ownership costs of a dedicated static server group.

Suddenly the benefits of the Cloud become clear.

Let me put forth my views on how Cloud computing can offer a range of benefits for today’s Pharmaceutical & Life Sciences industry: speed to market, internal and external collaboration needed for research & development and clinical trials, and a way to bring greater cost predictability for IT. While there have been concerns about Cloud security, I believe, with proper management, the Cloud can be just as secure (if not more) as any other component of the life sciences IT landscape.

Challenges facing the CIO

The life science industry is facing many challenges besides just increased technology needs and complexity. The entire industry is under intensive revenue pressures. The cost to develop a major new drug is close to $1 billion and takes around 10 years to complete and most potential drug research projects are abandoned at some point during the development process due to unexpected side effects or insufficient efficacy. Industry averages show that out of 1,000 potential compounds identified in the discovery phase as worth pursuing, only 1 will make it through the process, be granted market approval, and actually be sold.

Many large pharmaceutical companies are dealing with impending major revenue shortfalls as popular drugs come off patent and are open to generic competition. Just in 2011 alone there are over a dozen name brand drugs representing nearly $13 billion in revenue coming off patent protection.

These factors lead to an increase in risk, depressing investment in new drug startups while increasing the pressure on existing companies to bring their new therapeutics to market as quickly as possible. These economic realities have forced life science companies to find ways to reduce costs while at the same time increasing productivity and reducing time to market for new products.

As for the CIO at the life sciences company, there are multiple challenges to be dealt with on a daily basis. Not only are these CIOs being asked to do more with less they also must deal with issues such as:

  • An aging portfolio of legacy systems that must be kept in service as they contain critical data
  • Ensuring continued regulatory compliance for system related issues along with applicable foreign regulatory guidelines
  • Pressure to reduce budgets while meeting increasing needs from the business for responsiveness and agility
  • The need to reduce time-to-market for new therapies as every day of market exclusivity can potentially mean millions of dollars in revenue
  • Continual vendor and technology changes in the marketplace
  • Increasingly complex and resource intensive applications along with the explosion of data in R&D. The amount of data managed by life science companies almost doubles in 3 months.

So what does the Cloud have to offer?

In one single word: Agility. The Cloud not only brings speed but also instant availability of resources, and tools that enable collaboration and innovation.

To validate my point, listed below are a some real-world examples of life sciences companies who have been using the Cloud to bring new agility to their research and development processes:

  • Pfizer’s Biotherapeutics & Bioinnovation Center (BBC) business unit has been using public Cloud services to develop and refine models in antibody docking runs.
  • To speed transfer of electronic clinical trial data, a large pharma company has long been using trusted Cloud-based staging areas for assembly and error-checking of remotely collected trial data.
  • A major research consortium is using the open-source statistical package“R” to generate simulated data that will be used to test and validate statistical methods. This consortium is considering developing additional methods using SAS, R and other tools and de-identified claims and electronic medical record data.
  • In order to enable rapid collaboration with clients and partners, a Massachusetts bioinformatics firm, has moved their entire gene-sequencing process and related information-sharing portal to the Cloud.
  • Eli Lilly is working with a Cloud computing service provider to use the Cloud to replicate large components of their research IT operation in the Cloud.

Other areas where the Cloud can help in saving time and accelerating speed to market are developing new therapies and products. Areas such as genomics, proteomics, modeling and high-throughput screening (among others) are important activities that speed next-generation discovery and development. All of them require flexible and immense computational power on-demand; this is precisely what the Cloud has to offer.

Collaboration in the Cloud

In future, life sciences companies will use the Cloud for strategic sharing of information to collaborate internally and with external workgroups, vendors, customers, the larger research community and even regulatory bodies. As Cloud-based services are accessible from anywhere, connecting with collaboration partners via Cloud-based workspaces can be easier than setting up dedicated environments behind your own firewall.

Security issues around Cloud-based collaboration are similar to those faced when companies began using the Internet for sharing and downloading information. Though the Internet is a public environment, companies applied technology (encryption, virtual private networks, and others) to be able to use it to safely collaborate internally and with vendors, R&D partners and suppliers.

For an enhanced level of security in collaboration, Trusted Private Clouds, with availability limited to a single enterprise or a trusted group of users, offer a way to provide access to Cloud workspaces, while keeping the service fully within the control of a company’s virtual boundaries.

Regulatory compliance

One of the more complex and time consuming issues that the life science companies’ CIO’s have to deal with is ensuring that their systems and applications are in compliance with regulatory agency guidelines. How to deal with compliance is a major concern when any new applicable systems or major modifications to existing validated ones are being planned. Project plans for new systems must incorporate a significant amount of time to build compliance in while upgrades to existing systems can require partial or complete re-validation.

As in most issues around life sciences compliance, diligence is the watchword. With the right service mix and configuration, these extensive requirements can be met just as ably from the Cloud as they can from an internal datacenter.

Cost predictability

Another benefit life sciences companies get from working in the Cloud is the ability to move to a computing cost model where you buy exactly what you need for a given research project or IT initiative. Cloud-based services offer away to level out some of the peaks and valleys of the cost of IT management.

“Just in Time” IT resources

Companies can reduce computing costs by having access to just-in-time IT resources. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is a key component for reducing direct IT costs and overall TCO of applications. Provisioning of new hardware along with the datacenter space, power and support personnel is a major component of the CIO’s budget. Life science CIO’s should have a clear understanding of their application and project portfolio so that they can leverage Cloud technology to reduce infrastructure costs. Using public Cloud infrastructure for non-validated applications especially ones that have spikes in their resource needs will help save on hardware and support costs. Private Cloud for internal apps can be leveraged to handle those applications requiring a validated or controlled environment. By having a defined application deployment strategy life science CIO’s can significantly reduce costs for the hardware and support infrastructure.

Disaster recovery & backup in the Cloud

Disaster recovery and Cloud backup are also areas where significant cost savings can be realized. Virtual images can be built of critical applications allowing for temporary running of these systems in the Cloud in case of a disaster. Backup and restore – one of the major components of data management – can be simplified by utilizing Cloud-based backup solutions as a part of the overall offsite backup strategy.

Buy only what you need

Life sciences companies are finding great savings in finding specific areas of IT need that can be moved to the Cloud. An example would be of moving specific development environments (i.e., SAP or other back-office systems) to the Cloud for tuning and testing prior to bringing them online. If you need servers to run a specific piece of analysis, the Cloud offers a way to rapidly spin up the needed computer resources automatically based on defined thresholds without incurring heavy capital costs.

Service Levels in the Cloud

Cloud computing is not just raw computing power on demand, rather, think of it as a set of tools that range from full-blown Infrastructure as a Service all the way to Business Processes as a Service. Almost anything that you can “buy” from your own internal IT group you can also buy externally as part of a Cloud-based IT Infrastructure.

Summing up the Cloud value proposition for the Life Sciences industry

By employing Cloud as an integral part of the overall IT strategy, life science CIO’s will be able to reduce costs, quickly respond to user needs, ease the burden of regulatory compliance and support the complex process of life science R&D. Many CIO’s are already incorporating Cloud into their current IT portfolios and long term strategic plans.

What’s in store for the future? It would be great to be able to look at the future 5 years down the road to see how Cloud has been adopted and how it is being utilized in the life sciences. Certainly Cloud will be an integral part of the CIO’s portfolio and a much larger portion of the budget will be allocated to Cloud computing technologies than we are seeing today. The life science IT shop five years hence, will be much different than today, not only in technology and infrastructure but also in staffing and required skill sets.

One thing is clear; Cloud is a game changer and a technology that all life science companies need to embrace to remain competitive. Those that do not adapt to the Cloud will find themselves unable to keep up or remain competitive with those that do.