Betting on the Cloud: Life Science Data Management


Whether cloud computing emerged from J.C.R. Licklider’s vision of an “intergalactic computer network” or computer scientist John McCarthy’s notion of computation delivered as a public service, Computer Weekly’s “History of Cloud Computing” puts its genesis in the 1960s.

Although it didn’t gain traction until the 1990s, cloud computing has now passed the hype phase and is fully established, but in some industries more than others. IHS Technology projected that enterprise spending on the cloud will reach $235.1 billion by 2017 – triple the 2011 investment. 

Forbes reported that cloud computing is the strongest technology investment sector for the third year in a row, according to Deloitte's 2015 Global Venture Capital Confidence Survey. 

Life Science and the Cloud

Cloud computing is generally credited with three main benefits when it comes to business agility: increased collaboration, cost savings, and interoperability/connected operations. Given these advantages, what opportunities does the cloud present for life science? 

Nature reports that “biologists are joining the big-data club” and looking to the cloud to solve data access and volume challenges. “Much of the construction in big-data biology is virtual,” writes Vivian Marx.

Accenture sees opportunities for life science companies to “accelerate their adoption of the cloud across broader parts of their organization and value chain.” In its Outlook report, “Three Ways the Cloud is Revolutionizing Life Sciences", Accenture projects:

1. Personalized medicine will benefit from cloud-based social ecosystems; 

2. New-product development improvements will draw from more external innovation and multi-sourced data; 

3. A more global operating model will drive new partnerships and expanded markets

Cloud Security Concerns

Whenever cloud computing for data management comes up, so too does the topic of security. Companies question whether the cloud is safe for intellectual property and regulatory compliance. A 2012 survey by IDG Enterprise found that 70 percent of respondents - “a significant margin” - saw security as the primary barrier to cloud adoption.

By 2014, survey responses evolved to calling for public and private cloud service providers to “create and communicate security policies to be considered a valued partner.” 

Interestingly, the 2014 survey (the most recent by IDG) also found that the cloud increases IT flexibility, innovation, and responsiveness, and that cloud investments continue to rise, with enterprise organizations investing in cloud solutions significantly more than SMBs.

CIO magazine responded to the cloud security issue with an article uncovering the “20 greatest myths.” Suffice it to say, “server huggers” don’t get much sympathy.

Jens Hoefkens, director of strategic marketing and research at PerkinElmer, adds that there are solid technology solutions for security concerns - from encryption of data both in flight and at rest - to the use of local servers.

Given that companies are dealing with sensitive research data (and often patient data), PerkinElmer designed its cloud-based system with a strong emphasis on maintaining data safety and privacy. All data - regardless of whether it is in rest or in transit - is subject to strong encryption and also uses Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) architecture for secure access. The Signals system deploys in multiple geographic regions to help customers meet various regulatory and legal requirements regarding the physical location of the data.

Life Science & Pharma Trending Toward the Cloud

For life sciences customers, and the pharmaceutical industry in particular, cloud-enabled solutions meet the needs of two big trends:

1. Outsourcing: in which pharmaceutical organizations are doing more work outside their firewalls

2. High content data: a growing list of technologies that require extremely large and costly computing and storage capabilities

While many life science organizations have moved certain parts of their operations to the cloud – Human Resource activities, e-mail, and even clinical trial data – for some reason R&D is the last holdout.

“Ninety percent of clinical trials are running on electronic data capture systems – all cloud-based,” says Daniel Weaver, senior product manager for translational medicine and clinical informatics at PerkinElmer. “So the most critical, valuable, and expensive data they generate is already on the cloud. The concept that research data can’t be on the cloud doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.”

In fact, researchers in need of the data – and of collaborating around it, seem to agree. A collective of genomics researchers recently called on funding agencies to help establish a “global genomic data commons in the cloud", to be accessed by authorized researchers worldwide. 

Cloud: Control and Flexibility

PerkinElmer’s leadership embraces a cloud-computing future, recognizing that data analytics is a business driver. The cloud is necessary to best meet the needs for data management, integration, and analysis. As a result, the company is creating informatics solutions that leverage the cloud’s benefits of lower costs, zero installation, Internet of Things, and collaboration: PerkinElmer Signals and Elements. 

Nicolas Encina, vice president of the Innovation Lab at PerkinElmer, says the company is making a purposeful shift to “connect our instruments and make them smarter by virtue of linking them up to a cloud infrastructure.” Structuring, storing, and mining data in the cloud, and linking to a visualization platform enables informed decision-making, from managing instruments to downstream data processing. 

Perhaps we have not achieved an intergalactic computer network or computing as a public service. But the cloud does provide life science and other organizations with a secure, seamless, flexible, and low-cost means of effective data management.

What benefits are you deriving from the cloud? Are you leveraging industry best practices in cloud computing?