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Cloud Computing for the Laboratory

Using data in the cloud—what it means for data security

by Stuart Ward
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Cloud Computing for the LaboratoryCredit: iStock

The pharmaceutical market continues to grow and organizations are looking for innovative ways to manage the ever-increasing amount of data. For many laboratories, the data collected from experiments and processes performed is the most valuable asset they have and underpins the business decisions they make. Therefore, it is crucial that the data is collated and stored in a manner that keeps it secure, but also allows it to be efficiently used to support the various business objectives.

For the purposes of this article, the concept of security covers the following broad areas:

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1. Data collected is a true record of what has been performed and has not been tampered with. This is very important when the data is being used to make decisions and/or being used to back up submissions to regulatory authorities.

2. Preventing loss of the data (asset), either through the data being removed from organizations through improper means or information becoming no longer available.

A strategy to deal with large data sets

Data volumes are increasing, and organizations are looking for flexible data storage that can continue to meet business needs.

The amount of data that is being created, and consequently stored and used securely within organizations and laboratories, is increasing. One of the reasons for this increase in data storage is the fact that many laboratories are now using electronic data management solutions, which make it easier to capture and analyze data efficiently. Such solutions include electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) and laboratory information management systems (LIMS).

These systems have changed the end user’s behavior from capturing the minimum amount of data for a given experiment (because it is time-consuming to insert the data into a paper-based document), to capturing all of the data available. An electronic solution streamlines data capture and analysis, since many of the processes are automated. This also means the end user, whether they are a scientist or a researcher, can perform their responsibilities in a more effective and efficient manner. It’s a win-win for organizations as well as the users. In addition, it’s widely accepted that electronic data management solutions, which are integrated into corporate user identity management systems, provide a high level of security for an organization’s most treasured asset: their data.

Many of these electronic-based data management systems are deployed using an organization’s infrastructure; for example, using servers that are hosted within an on-premise data center. This has meant that as the amount of captured, analyzed, and stored data increases, so does the need for more infrastructure, such as servers. The processes that many laboratories and organizations need to go through to obtain this extra infrastructure can be extremely time-consuming. Subsequently, the ability to quickly adapt to the changing business requirements can be lost. In addition, if laboratories then stop the program of work that requires this extra resource, the organization is left with this infrastructure not providing any benefit to their business. So, laboratories and organizations are now turning to technology providers that can deliver infrastructure and/or software in a flexible way, which can adapt to the ever-changing business needs and/or the desire to capture and use increasing amounts of data.

The answer for many laboratories is to use the cloud to provide this flexible infrastructure and, in many cases, software resources. The pharmaceutical cloud computing market is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 20.9 percent between 2018 and 2022, reaching an impressive $12.1 billion. Clearly, cloud technology is here to stay.

However, many laboratories and organizations are asking, “Is the use of the cloud secure?” Is it the right place to store such an important asset, especially when the data is going to be used for regulatory purposes? One reason for this is that some people are not confident with what the cloud, especially “public cloud,” means and provides.

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“Does using the ‘public cloud’ mean that my data is available to everyone?” The short answer to this question is no! The data is not available to everyone. The public cloud just means that the service the public cloud vendor is providing can be made available to everyone.

In reality, security is at the forefront of everything that a public cloud vendor does since it would be very detrimental to the third-party vendor if the security of any data that was stored in their public cloud was compromised. Therefore, public cloud vendors have large numbers of security professionals and systems, compared to organizations’ on-premise setups, which are continually monitoring and acting upon perceived security threats in addition to actual threats. This also includes keeping the systems up to date in terms of infrastructure and software updates. Therefore, the systems that the cloud vendor is providing are always in top condition and ready to adapt to a customer’s needs.

On top of this “secure” platform, a cloud-deployed system can also provide organizations with an automated and flexible backup process, which generally includes the ability to back up in different locations, to ensure that the risk of data loss due to system issues is extremely small. The cloud also provides a scalable infrastructure resource that can easily be increased or decreased as organizational needs change; for example, the increase or decrease of users on the system or the volumes of data being stored.

Providing this same level of flexibility, security, scalability, and resilience for an organization’s on-premise deployed system is extremely costly and time-consuming. So, organizations are turning to cloud technology, and in many cases using software as a service (SaaS), to further reduce their operational burden and drive increased efficiency.

How does SaaS help customers deliver their business objectives faster?

Many data management software solutions are now provided as SaaS. This is because organizations are focusing on the capabilities of what the software provides—does it meet the business need? SaaS products also tend to be quicker to deploy since setting up and maintaining the infrastructure to run the software is the responsibility of the vendor providing the service. Another advantage of SaaS is that there’s a clear separation of responsibilities between the customer using the software and the vendor providing the service/software. This approach adds a layer of security in that it would require both the vendor and the customer to conspire to tamper with the data. The likelihood of that is extremely small. The vendor is focused on ensuring that the software/service is running to provide the best experience for the customer, and that the data is captured and stored in a secure and resilient manner. This means that the customer can focus on their business needs and adapt or change as required. For example, the ability to easily increase or decrease their use as business objectives change and keep the organization nimble and competitive, while keeping their data secure, always.

How to choose the right SaaS solution

The selection process of a SaaS solution should not vary significantly from any other software purchase: the software must be able to meet the business need(s) it’s being selected for. Other considerations, if not one of the primary needs, should be the flexibility the sofware will provide so that it can address the anticipated future needs and deliver a seamless end user experience. For example, can the SaaS solution be easily integrated with other systems and business processes to make it easy for end users to perform the work? It should be, as this will help drive adoption and maintain usage.

Since SaaS solutions are generally licensed using a subscription-based module, the other important consideration and question to ask is: what happens to the data when the contract to use the software is terminated? SaaS solutions generally have interfaces that enable customers to extract their data when the software is no longer used but it’s worth confirming this.

Historically, software deployed on-premise offered “one-size-fits-all” solutions, sometimes denying users the level of flexibility their businesses required. Choosing the right technology means catering to organizations’ unique needs, challenges, and strengths, while increasing efficiency across all teams. SaaS solutions, underpinned by cloud technology, have the ability to address industry concerns and provide the flexibility to adapt to ever-changing business needs, while providing the necessary security for the most valuable asset: the data.