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The clouds are rolling in

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Robert Roe investigates cloud and SaaS deployment models and the inherent flexibility and scalability they provide to users

Although security concerns exist, some vendors believe that concerns have been overplayed, and that the cloud is an inevitability that must be embraced in order to reduce costs and increase the functionality of existing informatics products.

According to Anthony Uzzo, president of Core Informatics: ‘Within due time everyone will be in the cloud; some will adopt the cloud at a faster pace than others, but we need look no further than the CIA, here in the United States, which has just invested $740 million in an Amazon web services deployment. The agency obviously feels pretty confident about the security practices that are in place for Amazon web services, and I think that is a very strong testament to what Amazon has done – they take security very seriously and we are seeing many other businesses follow suit.’

Core informatics provides a cloud-based platform, delivering LIMS, ELN and SDMS products and a marketplace for pre-built applications to customise the service further through cloud deployment using Amazon Web Services.

Karen Madden, president of informatics at Perkin Elmer, believes it is happening already: ‘Our customers are embracing the cloud. If you look across the industry, some have been relatively slow to adopt the cloud, but it is happening. Our customers are moving there and working now with systems that are almost entirely cloud-based. We see that trend accelerating not decelerating.’

Paul Denny-Gouldson, head of strategic solutions at IDBS, said: ‘The cloud is absolutely inevitable and the sooner people wake up to that mind-set, rather than just putting up the roadblocks and saying “security is an issue, no we can’t do it”, the better. They are going to have to do this eventually, so they need to understand what those security implications are and what can be done to manage that risk.’

Perkin Elmer has developed its Elements ELN platform with cloud capabilities, but unlike Core Informatics it sees the conventional product and its cloud-based equivalent as two distinct products. Madden said: ‘Elements really extends the capability for our core franchise enterprise ELN. We are viewing the product as two distinct products that address different markets and different types of customers, but the two are complementary to each other.’

Madden continued: ‘We are trying to give our customers flexibility, especially for our large enterprise customers, in terms of moving some of their data to the cloud to promote or enhance some of their collaborative activities – especially our large pharma customers who are doing externalisation of their R&D and working a lot more with CROs around the world.’

Madden concluded: ‘Just like with Elements, we are looking at offering and developing a lot of complementary products that are going to be cloud based. We recognise the importance of the cloud, all the features and the benefits of what the cloud has to offer.’

Core Informatics was an early adopter of cloud models for its products, and because of this it has a series of products delivered through the cloud that are already available today. Uzzo said: ‘Our platform is unlike many of the other products in the market. We deliver a platform of technology that enables our customers to manage any of their data from our suite of LIMS, ELN, and SDMS products, but also to access a library of applications built by Core Informatics and our partners to quickly extend the solution. In addition to this, our system has a very robust API that empowers our customers to build their own apps on top of the platform that is already available.’

One of the primary advantages with cloud-based informatics is the speed of deployment for a new solution and the scalability that cloud deployments provide. This allows users to quickly adapt to the shifting nature of workloads, by paying only for the amount of compute that the company needs at any one time.

Uzzo said: ‘Our customers in the cloud have access to an instance of our product within 24 hours of coming on board with Core Informatics, though that is typically a testing environment to facilitate their training. Nevertheless, they are quickly onto the platform, at which point they can immediately begin to access the library of applications in the marketplace or configure and add-on application functionality on-top of the platform.’ Denny-Gouldson explained that IDBS has been providing some services through cloud providers within its healthcare environment. He said: ‘We were hosting an environment for patient data, analytics, and aggregation, linking it with omics data and all sorts of stuff like that.’

Denny-Gouldson added: ‘In terms of SaaS, we do not have an offering at this immediate moment but it is part of our roadmap for next year to start delivering our infrastructure and our applications as a true SaaS offering – where you turn up, turn it on, and all it needs are some very quick start-up for the environment.’

Denny-Gouldson commented that the reason IDBS had been cautious moving ahead was to pay special attention to the security concerns of its users. He said: ‘It’s really a case of trying to figure out how R&D organisations can get around what is often fear, uncertainty and doubt when it comes to SaaS cloud or hosted services.’

Are we too scared?

Apprehension in regards to the adoption of new technology is not a new phenomenon for informatics vendors. The rise in the use of mobile devices poses many of the same risks as cloud deployments, as it is essentially just login credentials that prevent someone from accessing private data.

There are things that can be done to improve security. For example, users want to maintain visibility of who is accessing what information and who is trying to access the service. Another concern is whether data segregation techniques will be sufficient to protect sensitive information, but standards are already in place to deal with these kinds of issues.

In Madden’s view, although security is a primary concern, a lot of sensitive information is already stored in the cloud and this trend shows no sign of diminishing. In addition, the flexibility the cloud provides allows for the solution to be customised to the needs of any particular client.

Madden said: ‘Depending on the customer, and depending on what they need to do, will determine what they want to put in the cloud and how public or private that cloud will need to be. And that is part of the beauty of the cloud, because our customers can decide what they want on the cloud, and what they want available. I really don’t see it as being very different from some of the data security challenges that have been tackled by some of the other industries that have adopted the cloud.’ Denny-Gouldson said: ‘Every time I talk about this subject, it’s all about a “when” and not an “if”. More and more customers are under cost pressures to look at their infrastructure, and they see they can no longer afford to run all of this inside their organisations: “I am having my budget cut by 25 or even 30 per cent, how am I going to deliver the same level of support and functionality to the business?” The scientists demand that; they are not going to accept a lower level of service; they want exactly the same service, if not better.’

Denny-Gouldson concluded: ‘As a risk, I don’t see it any differently to someone hacking into your VPN – they are still going to need a password or some kind of login credentials. Sometimes it’s not technology, sometimes its training people and making them aware of the risks.’

The cloud has its benefits

Cloud computing has many benefits, from collaboration and scalability to elastic computing. Elastic computing is seen as a key focus because it can be pursued to alleviate the pressures of smaller companies or specific labs, to get work done without the need for a large scale infrastructure to back them all year round.

Uzzo said: ‘A key aspect of the platform is the way in which we are leveraging the cloud and the elasticity that it provides to customers. Our customer’s data and applications are distributed across physical data centres providing a level of high availability and redundancy.’ By themselves, he said: ‘Many of our customers simply could not afford that level of performance and availability.’

Madden observed that the reduced infrastructure costs associated with cloud informatics solutions actually allow providers to reach new markets that just could not afford these services before.

Madden said: ‘I think it allows you to address certain market segments more effectively. A large enterprise system has a certain cost associated with the infrastructure and support that a lot of smaller organisations just would not be able to afford. You can reach them with a more lightweight solution deployed in the cloud, through a pay-as-you-go subscription model.’

Another aspect Denny-Gouldson highlighted was being able to cloud burst specific jobs that need to be completed quickly. ‘We have also had examples where people have said we really need these results; can we run fast enough so we can get them in 12 hours instead of 24?’ he said.

From Core Informatics’ perspective, a key offering of their services is the ability to manage both structured data through the LIMS and unstructured data through the ELN, within one environment. This provides one coherent platform so that data can be managed effectively.

Uzzo said: ‘By providing LIMS, ELN and SDMS technologies, customers in any of the industries that we support can have a single platform for all of their data that is comprised of structured data management elements in the LIMS. We also provide the electronic lab notebook which captures all of their unstructured experiments and observations. We have direct and native integration with Microsoft and Office web apps, so that these scientists can use programmes and applications that they are most familiar with and directly associate and tie it with structured elements in the LIMS, all with a single login and a single account.’ 

Bringing together mobile and the cloud

One trend that has been touched on briefly is the proliferation of tablets and mobile devices within the workplace. Moreover, scientists increasingly want to access data wherever they are and this is something that Core Informatics sees as key to providing another area of differentiation from its competitors.

Madden remarked that cloud computation could be used to deliver real-time analytics, potentially to any computer, mobile device or tablet. Madden said: ‘We see a trend where users want to tap into the cloud for some heavy lifting; it can provide the analytics and the analysis and the results can be delivered anywhere. For example, in our Spotfire Life Sciences portfolio we are delivering dashboards and results to a broader set of customers through the webplayer that we have and delivering that data through mobile devices.’

Uzzo said: ‘We are seeing a significant surge within our customer base with companies that are interested in using mobile devices, whether tablets or smart phones, in the laboratory. Our goal is to make 100 per cent of our application functionality easy to use on any size tablet and smartphone.

Uzzo continued: ‘With today’s current environment and the trend of externalising a lot of research operations many of our customers now have research operations for which the sun never sets. People want access to data in real-time and often that is when they are outside of work hours, because someone else somewhere out in the world has published a new piece of data that is available.’

Uzzo added: ‘We believe that we are the first vendor in our market to provide 100 per cent responsive application that is suited around any of these environments. Mobility is going to drive the trend even more, I think, and it is cloud and mobile devices that are going to provide that real-time data access from any location.’

One area, if end users are willing to share sensitive information, that could provide a massive benefit to the scientific community is using the cloud as a platform for collaboration. In principle this is as easy as just creating a separate instance or allocating space on a multi-tenant installation that can be accessed by the collaborators so that they can share some data but keep private data in a separate environment.

This is a primary focus for Core Informatics and something the company believes is secure and ready to deliver to customers early in 2015. Uzzo said: ‘We have a collaboration product that we are going to be launching in Q1 of next year and many of our customers are already using this functionality to support different types of collaboration models. One customer is using it to support tissue culture laboratories across five different physical sites around the globe. They are using a private cloud-based multi-tenant installation of our product.’

Uzzo provided a number of examples for this type of collaboration, he said: ‘We also have customers who are managing all of their global CRO interactions with our platform where each CRO has a dedicated application within the system that grants them restricted and isolated access to the assays and samples and the data that they are generating but they are restricted from viewing each other’s work. Another example was collaboration with the Saudi Genome project. ‘This is a collaboration that we have done with Life Technologies where they are doing a population scale initiative at 13 different hospitals within Saudi Arabia. Our system is being used to facilitate collaboration and interaction between all of these 13 different sites.’

The idea behind providing a platform for science as opposed to highly specific customisable products has certain advantages, according to Mary-Ann Moore, vice president of marketing at Core Informatics. She said: ‘One of the reasons I joined Core Informatics recently is just seeing how the Core Informatics system is so configurable. I think that Core Informatics offers an advantage in being able to have customers configure their systems, as opposed to customise them, which allows for much easier upgrade paths.’

Moore continued: ‘It is really important to take a step back from customer issues sometimes, so you can really see the patterns among customer requests instead of just creating instances that might be specific to one customer’s needs. Core Informatics created an incredibly flexible system, one that takes into account the patterns across the industries so that the system can absorb these requests from customers in a configurable way versus customisable.’

Flexibility was a key focus for Perkin Elmer. Madden explained that cloud models allow for updates to be rolled out almost instantly. This allows cloud informatics vendors to add value on a more regular basis than was previously possible.

Madden concluded: ‘Another benefit of the cloud we have noticed is that in terms of software development, we would typically release a new software package every 6-9 months, but that is not the case with the cloud. You are able to pass along those added value features, updates, new developments and even new functionality, and instead of every few months, you can do it every few weeks with a cloud deployment.