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Life Sciences R&D Ascending to the Cloud

By Ken Rubenstein

May 18, 2010 | Insights Outlook | Cloud computing is rapidly growing in importance as life science R&D organizations are inundated with data from multiple sources. Simultaneously, demand for computationally complex modeling and simulation studies continues to rise dramatically. Limited funding and budgets make it difficult for many organizations to build the infrastructure necessary to keep pace with these challenges. Cloud computing appears to many as a promising alternative to in-house expansion. The outsourcing trend and economic restrictions, coupled with the increasing attractiveness of cloud computing offerings, have created a highly dynamic yet nascent market. A recent Insight Pharma report analyzes this environment and offers the following observations and conclusions:

• Cloud computing for life sciences R&D is growing rapidly but is still in its infancy, with most organizations still in testing-the-water mode.

• Next-generation DNA sequencing, by virtue of its Moore’s law-style growth in data volumes, is the single-most important application area for operation in the cloud. Soon-to-be-released third-generation systems up the ante even more.

• As raw DNA sequence becomes ever less expensive, requirements to derive useful information from the data continue to grow along with the associated costs. The utility nature and scalability of the cloud favor its adoption for this purpose.

• Amazon Web Services has put together a highly impressive package of cloud service offerings for life science R&D with a very attractive pricing structure. Competitors will be hard-pressed to capture significant market share in the short term.

• Amazon’s successes in cloud computing have enabled significant market opportunities for smaller “middleware” companies to serve special needs of particular user segments.

• Academic life science researchers are particularly interested in conducting computationally-intensive modeling and simulation studies in the cloud. We can expect major growth in this sector in the next several years.

• Although many in the bioinformatics community believe that data security is no more at risk, and possibly less so, in the cloud than in-house, large commercial organizations are moving cautiously to protect mission-critical data and intellectual property. Pfizer’s adoption of the Amazon Virtual Private Cloud, which permits a company to extend its firewall and other security measures to the cloud, albeit at some cost in operating efficiency, exemplifies the issue.

• Smaller organizations lacking adequate computational infrastructure to meet current and future needs are the best early candidates for extensive participation in the cloud. However, recent shifts in the basic nature of big pharma R&D favor forthcoming extension to large-scale participation.

• Based on our survey results, a minority of potential customers either use cloud services routinely or are currently testing the feasibility of doing so. More either plan to enter the cloud or are considering such a plan. Virtually none of our respondents thought their organizations would most likely not get involved with cloud services.

• Both commercial and academic respondents to the survey offered scalability and collaboration as primary motivations for cloud computing, but the academic sector is most interested in avoiding the purchase of new hardware.

• Given a choice of five classes of cloud services, commercial users were most interested in workflow management and least interested in software-as-a-service, whereas academic users were least interested in the former and most in the latter. Storage was not among the top selections for either sector.

• Given a choice among preference for public, private, and hybrid clouds, both sectors expressed significant interest in all three, although commercial users gave most support to hybrid clouds while academics gave top preference to public clouds.

• Given a selection of areas of possible concern over cloud services, both sectors are most concerned over data security (commercial users more so), and are next-most worried about reliability of cloud systems.

• Both commercial and academic respondents anticipate major growth in data processing and storage requirements during the next year, and even more so during the next three years; 3–5-fold increase predictions were not uncommon.

• The proportion of bioinformatics budgets devoted to cloud computing in both sectors will grow continually and strongly during the next three years.

• Both commercial and academic users consider cloud computing to be a major paradigm shift for bioinformatics, but also an evolutionary step consistent with trends to increased outsourcing.

• Survey respondents gave Google and Microsoft a better chance than HP or IBM in giving Amazon a run for its money.

Ken Rubenstein can be reached at Cloud Computing in Life Sciences R&D, by Ken Rubenstein, PhD, is available from Insight Pharma Reports. For more information, visit

This article also appeared in the May-June 2010 issue of Bio-IT World Magazine. Subscriptions are free for qualifying individuals. Apply today.

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