June 28, 2011

Cloud Computing in Life Sciences

Posted in Cloud at 9:08 PM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

This will be the first of what I expect to be several blogs on this topic as this is the direction technology is headed in.  There’s no denying it.  IT as we know it is changing.  The real question for those of us in life sciences is how and when do we embrace this new technology.  

There are three layers of the Cloud to be considered.

  1. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) (Amazon Web Services)
  2. Platform as a Service (PaaS) (Google App Engine)
  3. Software as a Service (SaaS) (Salesforce.com)

In life sciences, the easiest one to embrace would be IasS  to outsource a company’s IT infrastructure.  Who wouldn’t love to get rid of the headache of managing servers supporting an organization and the crazy technical guys and gals doing it.  Cloud offers you  a ‘pay as you go’ model which allows you to take advantage of significant computing resources, when you need them (not all of the time) without hosting it yourself.  Cloud vendors provide you with access to these resources and maintain them in what you would need to verify to be a secure and controlled fashion.  One definite benefit here is that these vendors can hire more experts to stay abreast of specific technology issues than most companies can in their own IT departments.  It is definitely appears to be more efficient. 

As far as Software as a Service, I have real trouble with this in life sciences.  While it sounds grand to be able to get rid of all of your IT headaches, how can you outsource the business know-how associated with how your organization needs to use the applications?  The efficiencies to be gained in Cloud computing is having everyone do things the same way.   I remember how this wasn’t done well back in the ASP days and can’t imagine it working well now.  And, no, I am not a fan of hosted solutions either.  Not all organizations run their business the same way so forcing organizations down that path as it appears organizations like NetSuite do is not what I would advocate for my clients.  It sounds good and seems economical but the price you pay is not just financial.  You give up control. 

And this is where it gets tricky for life sciences companies: qualification and control.  We can’t simply toss it over the fence and let the vendor take care of the infrastructure , servers and applications.  Life sciences companies need to demonstrate control over their infrastructure and systems to be able to defend the integrity of their data to the FDA and other governing bodies. 

Internally, our organizations need to establish minimums in terms of policies and procedures, and if we outsource, verify the vendor has similar policies and procedures and that they do in fact adhere to them.  It’s no different from outsourcing API manufacturing to a CMO.  The cloud vendor becomes part of the approved supplier process and is subject to similar audits and monitoring.   On site audits need to be performed prior to signing any agreements and specific service and control requirements need to be in place from a contractual perspective.  I know of some organizations that have specialized agreements to be included with Cloud vendor contracts covering this very thing. 

I know Cloud is the way of the future but I am not ready to advocate this for life sciences as I believe that the model has not matured to the point where we can comfortably eliminate the technical staff  or business analysts within our IT departments.  The market is still immature and growing so rapidly that the controls are not in place to adequately meet compliance requirements that are inherent to life sciences organizations.   This isn’t to say they won’t get there; it’s just going to be a while.

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