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Up in the Clouds

The cloud offers unique IT solutions but as yet the pharmaceutical industry has failed to maximise its potential. By identifying and adopting the right model, companies can ensure than even the most critical of data is stored securely.

The pharmaceutical industry has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, as a shrinking drug pipeline and customer base combined with a poor economic climate, have seen costs sky-rocket and profits dwindle. To compound issues further, the pharmaceutical industry has had to struggle with an exponential rise in data that is being generated from increasingly complex research studies and analysis of customer interactions.

To cope with these issues, pharmaceutical organisations have been looking to the IT industry to deliver technologies which will help increase research and backoffice efficiency, as well as provide a more flexible and scalable IT infrastructure. This is where cloud computing comes in. Heralded by many as the ultimate solution for businesses needing to develop more flexible, powerful and scalable IT infrastructures, cloud is quickly becoming the must-have platform across all industries. However, even though some pharmaceutical companies, such as Eli Lilly and Pfizer, have taken steps towards cloud adoption, the pharmaceutical industry as a whole is lagging behind and failing to realise the full benefits of cloud (1,2). So the question is, with cloud offering the ideal solution to the global pharmaceutical market’s problems, what is holding organisations back from adoption and more importantly, what can be done to encourage this?

Laying the Foundations

Despite a general industry hesitancy, several areas of the pharmaceutical industry have already taken their first tentative steps into the cloud and have highlighted the benefits on offer, including:

More Space for Next Generation Sequencing (NGS)

If there is one area that has been calling out for a cloud-like solution, it is NGS.

Industry research models have evolved from small to large molecules and, as a result, the amount of information generated during a single experiment has exploded to hundreds of petabytes or even zettabytes worth of data, making research more complex and difficult to manage. A cloud infrastructure offers an infinite virtual environment for this information to be stored and analysed, helping pharmaceutical companies reduce the cost of drug discovery while also improving innovation capabilities.

Sharing of Research Data

Collaboration is key to driving innovation, but this can be incredibly difficult when teams are dealing with such large amounts of information. The cloud provides the perfect tool in a single, scalable environment, where individuals from multiple team, organisations or even different countries can share materials and ideas. To this end, some of the largest pharmaceutical companies have formed an industry body called The Pistoia Alliance to help drive the seamless sharing of research data. The Pistoia Alliance is working on a five-year initiative to standardise pharmaceutical vocabulary to enable more successful data exchange. The organisation has established a cloudbased electronic laboratory notebook that multiple organisations across the globe can access and contribute to.

Customer Information Analysis

Businesses are increasingly turning to social networking ‘chatter’ as they seek to extract useful customer information to develop more successful sales and marketing campaigns. Though the pharmaceutical sector may not be as advanced as some, it too is looking to harness online conversations, such as those between physicians and patients or those on customer forums. However, in order for companies to address these new methods of communication, they need to have access to new listening, engagement and analytics capabilities, which can require a substantial IT investment. This is where the flexibility of cloud tools, such as Veeva Systems’ CRM offering based on Force.com and Microsoft Dynamics CRM on-demand, can provide businesses with ‘as-a-service’ tools that negates the need for a large investment.

Barriers to Cloud Adoption and Overcoming the Challenges

So, with the benefits of cloud being discussed across the world and initial pharmaceutical implementations offering positive results, why isn’t the industry seeing more rapid adoption? The primary answer is that the data that so desperately requires this new environment is often deemed too sensitive for the cloud. When it comes to hosting competitive intelligence or confidential customer information, many pharmaceutical companies still view the risk of information being hacked as too high.

In order to tackle this, companies need to fully investigate the range of cloud models on offer, so they can understand where best to store their information. For example, the public cloud is often seen as the cheapest model, offering businesses a shared environment where they can store their data. However, as its name suggests, the public cloud provides services or software on a network that can be accessed by a range of parties, leaving sensitive information more easily accessed by others. At the other end of the scale is the private cloud, which offers an altogether more suitable location for confidential information, as it is completely hosted on a company’s own network. In an industry as heavily regulated as the pharmaceutical sector, the ability to protect information from external sources is not only important for maintaining a competitive advantage, but is also critical in keeping businesses compliant. A private cloud model provides companies with the tools needed to tackle regulations, which require pharmaceutical companies to be able to control and monitor who has access to critical data. By having in place the right cloud environment and supporting data protection with additional tools, such as Access Management software or encryption and tokenisation devices that protect information while in transit, pharmaceutical businesses can be confident that their most sensitive information is kept safe.

Another issue impacting cloud adoption is that for many of the largest pharmaceutical companies the initial hardware and software license investment can be seen as too expensive, despite the promises of return on investment. With many of the global brands, such as Johnson & Johnson which employs 114,000 staff in 175 countries, the cost of rolling-out a cloud infrastructure would be incredibly high (3). And yet, it is these huge corporations that stand to profit the most from the efficiency and collaboration benefits that cloud offers. This is where ‘as-a-service’ cloud offerings come into their own, with platform-as-a-service (PaaS), software-as-a-service (SaaS) and business-process-asa- service (BPaaS), helping to move large parts of the value chain to an operational expenditure rather than a capital expenditure. It is not just the initial setup costs that are reduced with this model, but also the long-term maintenance and upgrade costs, which are made much quicker and more cost effective in a virtual environment.

Conclusion

Cloud computing is opening up a world of possibilities for the pharmaceutical industry, both in terms of cost and efficiency savings, and is also helping the sector rekindle its dwindling drug pipeline through more effective collaboration and information sharing. The industry has already seen some great examples of what cloud can offer, such as Pfizer’s recent cloud implementation which aims to deliver real-time information to the global sales team (4). However, relying on small pockets of cloud will not work in the long term. The industry cannot afford to let concerns over security hold it back from adopting cloud on a wider level.

References

  1. Eli Lilly On Cloud Computing Reality, Information Week, 13th November, 2010, http://www.informationweek.com/news/hardware/data_centers/228200755
  2. How Pfizer Uses Cloud Computing for R&D Projects, Bio Pharma, 11th June, 2010, http://biopharmadirectory.com/news/?p=159
  3. Johnson & Johnson, http://www.jnj.com/connect/about-jnj/
  4. Callidus Software news room, 14th September, 2011, http://www/.callidussoftware.com/templates/newspress.aspx?id=4920

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Subhro Mallik is Associate Vice President with the Life Sciences Practice at Infosys. In his 16 years of professional experience, he has been involved in strategic management, business technology solutions and global sourcing across various industries in several countries. Subhro holds a graduate degree in Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee. Email: subhromallik@infosys.com
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