Head in the Clouds

As consumers, we've all no doubt heard of cloud computing, but how is it being used in the business world? We interview Subhro Mallik from IT firm Infosys about how pharma is responding to the cloud computing phenomenon and what more can be done to realise business benefits.
Feb 01, 2012
Volume 24, Issue 2

Q: Cloud computing has become more prevalent in recent years and the introduction of Apple's iCloud service will certainly increase uptake by the masses, but how does it compare with in-house computing?

Subhro Mallik
Although services such as Apple's iCloud or Amazon's Web Services will see the mass appeal of cloud computing increase, this will predominantly be on the consumer level rather than an enterprise one. However, irrespective of the vendor, when comparing cloud computing to in-house computing, the main benefit is that the whole ecosystem is managed entirely by the vendor. As a result, pharmaceutical companies can experience the business benefits of an efficient IT infrastructure without having to manage legacy programmes or software updates. In an industry that is increasingly facing budget constraints, being able to reduce hours spent on administrative tasks can be hugely beneficial as time can be better spent on activities that drive competitive advantage or business development.

Q: Is cloud computing currently being used at all by pharmaceutical companies and, if so, is the technology being used to its full potential?

Some forward-looking companies have already invested in cloud computing and are realising the benefits. Pfizer, for example, has trialled the use of cloud computing to conduct online clinical research with customers and is now using it to deliver real-time information to its global sales team (1) . In addition, The Pistoia Alliance, an industry body formed by informatics experts from leading pharmaceutical companies including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis, has successfully piloted cloud-based sequence services that allow members to easily access and share their latest research.

However, on the whole, the pharmaceutical industry has yet to harness the full potential that cloud computing has to offer. Perhaps the single biggest opportunity for the pharma sector is cloud computing's capacity to store vast amounts of data. One of the best examples of how cloud computing could benefit researchers can be found in Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS). A single NGS experiment can generate hundreds of petabytes or even zettabytes of data, which makes this research method very expensive. NGS promises to make DNA research far cheaper than is possible with the current standard dye-terminator method, but the right platform is needed to host this information. Cloud computing offers a solution by providing a vast yet scalable global processing environment.

Companies should also be considering how cloud computing can enable the adoption of emerging capabilities, such as mobility and social media. Though the virtues of these technologies are increasingly recognised by the pharmaceutical industry, adoption often requires too many updates to existing IT infrastructures to make them viable. Cloud computing offers an environment that is quick to build and cheap to maintain.

Q: For host companies wanting to serve pharmaceutical clients, what are the challenges in terms of security and validation in accordance with the pharma industry's stringent requirements?

The main challenge for host companies wanting to service pharmaceutical clients is one of perception. Hosts need to be able to reassure customers that data confidentiality and privacy requirements can be met satisfactorily, whether it is to do with sensitive customer information, such as clinical trial results, or information that can influence competitive advantage, such as drug discovery data.

The current roadblock is that there are no security solutions that can guarantee 100% protection against cyber threats. Nevertheless, there are steps that hosts can take to tackle pharma's hesitancy around the security risks of cloud computing. Firstly, private cloud environments are more secure than public cloud services. As the name suggests, private clouds are only accessible to the businesses they've been created for, which means that information contained within them is not in the public domain. In addition, private clouds can be tailored to meet the regulatory requirements of each business, so companies can add their own security steps for users wanting to access the platform. Secondly, although no product is entirely secure, there are a wide range of encryption and access management tools available that cloud hosts can employ to help pharmaceutical companies feel more confident in data safety.

Q: Security is clearly a major concern, but are there any other challenges that still need to be addressed? What is needed to encourage greater uptake of cloud computing in the pharma industry?

Security is certainly a concern for the customers we speak with, but it is not the only barrier to adoption. In fact, a concern we hear about even more frequently than security is whether cloud computing will offer sufficient return on investment (ROI). The key concern is that the ability of cloud computing to scale up and down in accordance with usage could end up putting an uncapped drain on resources. For example, pharmaceutical brands looking to adopt mobile technology for customer communications may find that usage costs are currently quite low compared with the offered rewards because adoption is not too widespread. However, companies are concerned about what will happen if the technology proves to be a success and usage increases. At the moment, there is a lack of effective financial modelling to reassure companies of the business benefits.

One of the key factors that cloud vendors and hosts must consider is that most businesses do not care what platform their infrastructures are hosted on; rather, they are interested in the offered services. To ultimately drive cloud computing adoption, vendors need to offer more services, such as clinical trials or compliance tracking, to move conversations from basic 'horse power' to real business benefits.

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