PharmaView: Lilly’s Head Is in the Clouds: Virtualize Computing

By virtualizing its computing, Lilly can do more, with more people involved.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

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I’m not an “IT guy,” but am smart enough to know that from here on out we all need to be IT guys and gals. Thus, cloud computing is something I’ve determined to wrap my brain around. Cloudbook.net has been a great resource, as have cloud tweets on Twitter.

Cloud computing is essentially computing done over the Internet rather than on one’s own internal servers. It affords companies computer power beyond their own capacities (for a fee, of course), and opens collaborative capabilities never before possible.

Cloud computing also enables software vendors to provide platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and software-as-a-service (SaaS) products that they host on their own servers. Amazon, IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and others are betting much of their financial futures on their cloud businesses. And rest assured that any of your favorite software vendors—SAP and Symyx come to mind—are aggressively preparing and marketing their own hosted products.

Meanwhile, academic institutions and private companies see the cloud as a solution to getting cheap, easy access to high-performance computing (HPC) capabilities. Drug research will be a major beneficiary.

Eli Lilly has its head in the cloud. It is aggressively “virtualizing” its computing, “which allows us to shrink the footprint in our data centers in terms of the numbers and quantities of server and storage platforms,” says David Powers, a Systems Engineer who is overseeing Lilly’s cloud activity.

“Virtualization is not the end game,” he says. “Rather it’s an enabler of new innovation and new capabilities that we can leverage to enable the research engine of Lilly.”

Editor’s Note: For our full interview with Powers, click here.

Lilly partnered initially with Amazon. In the world of “shared” computing and services, data security is obviously a major concern. Using Amazon’s Virtual Private Cloud (VPC)—that is, it’s not “exposed” to the public Internet—Lilly is moving from an “owning it all” IT position to one where it owns what it wants, and rents what it needs. Cloud solutions were “on-demand, scalable, elastic, had cost transparency like none we had seen and was very low friction to start using immediately,” Powers says.  

How is Lilly leveraging cloud? First of all, for advanced analytical capabilities, whether on the business or R&D side. Powers says that Lilly was on target to have 10 HPC applications “cloud enabled” by end of 2009. In addition, it has completed version 1.0 of its own “self-service” computing solution for its internal users, something “we affectionately refer to as our Vending Machine Computing environment,” kind of like a private cloud available only to Lilly users worldwide.

What kinds of experimentation are taking place in this area? “We are working on some small prototypes of collaboration with external parties right now including sharing of algorithms for analytics and securely exchanging data with collaborators,” he says. “The bottom line is that until we can figure out the whole Identity Management issue, my vision of leveraging the cloud as a point of integration will lag behind.”

In other words, cloud computing raises security issues, from data encryption, machine and computing access, threats from a larger shared environment—major issues for drug manufacturers especially. Cloud computing has “shown us that the days of living with a feeling of comfort and security behind the firewall on our corporate network are starting to come to an end,” Powers says. “Which has the effect of changing how we approach security in our own software development practices internally as well as what we expect from our COTS packages and vendors.” These security and legal concerns have slowed Lilly’s ability to engage cloud partners.

Will cloud computing impact manufacturing operations? Not initially, Powers says. “We are not of the mindset that everything is ready to move to the cloud today,” he says. “Neither are cloud vendors ready nor are enterprise applications ready for such a bold move. . . . To be sure there are manufacturing systems and real-time systems that are absolutely critical to our day-to-day business and any disruption to those process workflows could prove a significant impact.  I think it’s safe to assume that these types of environments are not going to be at the top of our list of candidates to start moving to the cloud on day one.”

As for the future? “Going forward, I see cloud computing expanding its role in our advanced analytics strategy,” Powers says. “I expect to see many of the Identity and Security issues to be solved by really smart and creative people which will truly enable us to take advantage of the cloud as our point of integration for collaboration with partners globally. I believe the cloud will also start to steadily become the foundation of our computing environment going forward.”

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