Cloud Computing Efficiency

What cloud computing is, why it can save time and money, and how to select the right cloud solution.
Jul 01, 2011
By Applied Clinical Trials Editors

Cloud computing is a relatively new phenomenon in the life sciences industry that many pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CROs) are just beginning to adopt. Companies are looking to gain a better understanding of what cloud computing is, where its application makes sense in their world, and whether its web-based infrastructure complies with strict internal and regulatory requirements for data security and process in an increasingly globalized industry.

There is a spotlight on cloud computing because of its potential for streamlining clinical development processes, accelerating timelines, and cutting information technology (IT) costs. Initial efforts in life sciences have mostly concentrated on more efficient handling of the volumes of data generated by the R&D process, but there are also emerging clinical trials applications. Specifically, optimizing the way documents from multiple sources are collected, exchanged across a network, and archived is a significant focus. With tight security in place, document-centric processes involving internal and external stakeholders can be centralized, automated, and monitored in the cloud, which greatly improves operational efficiency. As research and development, complex protocols, and regulatory compliance activities are generating massive numbers of documents, traditional paper-based or simple desktop methods of document handling are becoming unsustainable, making the cloud an attractive alternative.

But what exactly is the cloud? This article attempts to answer this question from the perspective of the life sciences industry, which has concerns surrounding the security and compliance of the cloud. This article will also provide some practical considerations in selecting cloud solutions for clinical trial operations.

Cloud computing—defined

Cloud computing is a catchy term that refers to delivering hosted services over the Internet.1 It is an environment in which software does not reside on desktops, but rather resides on a web-based server with shared virtualized resources. Software is available on-demand, similar to what consumers experience when they download apps on their smartphones or personal digital assistants. This delivery model has the benefit of extending IT's capabilities for accessing web-based applications in real time while reducing the cost and footprint of the internal IT infrastructure. 2

The architecture behind cloud computing is a massive network of interconnected servers, often with a user-friendly front-end interface, which allows users to select services. These services have three characteristics that distinguish them from traditional hosting:3, 4

  • They are available on demand, and can be subscription-based or pay-per-use
  • A user can have as much or as little of a service as it wants
  • The service is hosted, managed, and maintained by the provider, meaning that the user needs only a device and Internet access

Besides the architectural component, cloud computing allows for a flexible operating platform. This means that in contrast to the traditional approach of using systems and processes that have been hardwired to particular technologies and providers, cloud computing offers a technology environment that changes the nature and economics of data exchange. The benefit of this platform is that companies can create a more open and responsive environment for innovation.5

Figure 1. Offerings fall into three broad categories.
The cloud platform has evolved to include an array of providers whose offerings fall into three broad categories: Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) (Figure 1). There is no requirement for upfront capital expenditure with any of these cloud configurations, so choosing the right cloud structure is a function of a customer's need to communicate outside firewalls, need for mobile access, interest in limiting upfront costs, scalability requirements, and high collaboration requirements.

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