Patricia F. Fitzpatrick Dimond Ph.D. Technical Editor of Clinical OMICs President of BioInsight Communications

Companies large and small are seeing benefits as cloud-based services get fine-tuned for the life sciences.

Once described as less a technological advance than a new business model, cloud computing offers small biotechs access to big technology and heavy computing power relatively cheaply. Ranging from complete IT infrastructures in the sky to basic data storage, features of cloud computing include resource outsourcing, utility computing, large collections of inexpensive machines, automated resource management, virtualization, and parallel computing.

Now, biotech and pharma companies large and small are increasingly joining the cloud. “The flexible infrasctructure afforded by the cloud has immediate applications in data- and computer-intensive environments like drug discovery,” Accenture’s Arjun Bedi, global managing partner, life sciences, R&D practice, pointed out to GEN.

Bruce Maches, chief information officer of Right Fit Technology and former director of IT for Pfizer’s R&D division, agreed. “The amount of data being managed in life science companies doubles about every three months. This generally means biotech companies of less than 50 people have some of the same needs and challenges of larger organizations but also have a stated goal of creating an IT infrastructure that requires next to no on-site support and uses hosted applications and remote infrastructure for primary applications and systems.”

While biotech and pharma companies may voice some reservations about data privacy, cloud computing offerings by large public cloud providers and smaller companies are expanding. Additionally, intermediary firms are also stepping into the mix, betting that cloud computing may offer the ideal solution to biotech companies.

Advantages of Leveraging the Cloud

Typically, Maches explained to GEN, life science firms use three types of cloud services: IAAS (infrastructure as a service) for companies that can’t support the required infrastructure themselves; PAAS (platform as a service) to build applications the customer relationship management and similar processes; and SAAS (software as a service), which includes cloud-based informatics solutions.

Maches noted that he is seeing a lot of large firms offering services more oriented to the life sciences and building dedicated practices. “Companies I speak to have had issues because many high-tech company representatives knew nothing about drug discovery or regulatory issues.”

Bedi also predicted that cloud-based service providers will develop more applications to enable biotech and pharma research processes. He pointed to providers like Oracle that already deliver specific applications for R&D clients in the cloud environment.

For example, he noted, “you can execute a clinical trial using cloud structure for data collection through to management and regulatory packaging, and you can buy the software and the infrastructure without worrying about buying hardware, or even a laptop.”

Commenting on how cloud-based services are changing the way life science firms like those focused on drug discovery manage data, Bedi said, “traditionally, these companies would have to invest in new hardware and software, and during peak demand, they would have to buy up hardware to meet that peak demand. But most of the time, the hardware was sitting unutilized. That was very expensive.” What the cloud allows smaller firms to do is buy into a larger pool of infrastructure on demand, Bedi concluded.

While the cloud is gaining increased acceptance as a means to quickly and more cheaply provide resources for life science firms that do not have enough internal resources, Maches remarked that even companies with more in-house infrastructure can find advantages. They use the cloud for “bursting” capabilities when demand for resources is high, he explained.

“Lilly, for example, was doing computational chemistry and figured it would need hundreds of servers to validate and manage the data,” Maches told GEN. “And it would take several days for the servers to crunch through the data. It would have cost them hundreds of thousands to install a sufficient number of servers to accomplish what they needed to do. Using the cloud, they had access to 3,000 virtual servers, for dollars in the teens.”

Data Privacy Concerns

Last year, however, claimed that Lilly dropped Amazon’s AWS Elastic Cloud Compute 2 (EC2) service because they couldn’t get Amazon to indemnify them against network outages, security breaches, and other types of risk inherent in the cloud. Amazon CTO Werner Vogels then posted a Twitter message, stating that Eli Lilly remains an Amazon customer.

True or not, aptly commented, “If Amazon is not willing to be accountable for issues like network outages, security breaches, etc., it is going to adversely affect the efforts by Amazon to lure enterprise customers into public clouds.”

Maches told GEN that “for the most part I have not found security to be a major issue among my clients.” He explained, however, that companies have the option to have their document-management systems in private clouds as opposed to public clouds. “They can go to a company that has built a cloud for a specific purpose or is managed by a single organization with restricted access.

“Where people get uncomfortable, he said, is when they have to say, ‘I know my data is out there somewhere but not exactly where; large companies guard where their data centers are.” Maches concluded, however, that “it’s like buying electricity—you don’t need to know how it got there.”

Small and Intermediary Providers

Smaller firms than the likes of IBM and Microsoft as well as life science companies stepping into the cloud may provide a larger comfort margin for biotech and pharma enterprises. In 2009, Linux specialist Penguin Computing launched its Penguin on Demand, a pay as you go service that provides access to the firm’s high-performing computing cluster built and hosted at a data center in Utah.

Other companies provide a sort of middle-man service between the bigger providers and biotechs. They offer cloud-based solutions through partnerships with providers like Amazon, AT&T, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Yahoo, as well as directly. For example, Life Technologies incorporated cloud computing into its offerings to customers.

Life Technologies partnered with Penguin, giving customers the option of running Life Technologies’ data-processing software on their own computer, if their hardware met the requirements, purchase a Penguin cluster with preinstalled software, or obtaining a cloud subscription through Penguin.

In biotech the ability to manage data storage and analysis continues to become more challenging. Companies are finding it increasingly tougher to maintain and manage a validated infrastructure inexpensively. Despite apprehensions to adopt this new technology, life science firms will more and more tap into the cloud.

Patricia F. Dimond, Ph.D. ([email protected]), is a principal at BioInsight Consulting.

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