Advances in communications technology over the last decade, especially in wireless communication, have enabled the widespread use of cloud-based data storage in the pharmaceutical/biotech and healthcare industries.
In a cloud system, data is physically stored in a remote location, where it can be accessed by authorized users from anywhere. This approach has several advantages, including a high degree of flexibility, scalability, and ease of use compared to onsite data storage. Dickson leverages cloud storage in our DicksonOne system, which integrates networks of environmental sensors in a centralized web-based platform.
In this article, we’ll cover some of the details of cloud computing in the pharmaceutical space (‘pharma cloud computing’), how it is used, and the major reasons that companies are migrating to cloud-based infrastructures.
How Dickson and the Pharma Industry Use Cloud-Based Information and Data Storage
Pharma cloud computing involves storing data on internet-connected servers so that it can be accessed, processed, or downloaded from anywhere. This concept has been around for about 15 years, but its industrial use has become much more common in the last 5 years. In fact, the amount of corporate data stored in the cloud nearly doubled from 2015 to 2020.
This trend will continue in the future, driven by the many advantages of cloud-based infrastructure, and in part by a shift to more remote work in the pharmaceutical space and in other industries.
Before we discuss some use cases and advantages of pharma cloud computing, we’ll cover the systems themselves in more detail. First, there are a few options or models for cloud storage, distinguished mainly by who owns and uses the system:
- Public cloud systems are open for anyone to use. These include commercial services that you’re probably familiar with, like Amazon AWS, Dropbox, or Google Cloud.
- Private systems are wholly-owned and controlled by a single company for internal users. These are mainly found at large companies with significant IT resources.
- Hybrid systems are a blend of public and private, with some data stored in internal servers, and some stored in a public cloud.
- Community systems are shared between users or companies with common interests, so they aren’t fully public but are not strictly private either.
One of the major advantages of cloud computing, flexibility in scale, is a feature of public, hybrid, and community systems. If more storage space is needed, for example when an IT system is brought online or expanded, the user simply requests a larger server space allocation from the cloud provider (which usually involves an increase in operating expense).
While private systems can provide remote data access, increasing storage space requires adding physical hardware within the company, similar to legacy onsite data storage.
You might also read about how data is stored in the cloud in “warehouse” or “lake” configurations. This refers to how the data is organized. In a warehouse, information is organized using fixed rules for a specific purpose. For example, a stream of temperature data over time from an environmental sensor placed in a warehouse. In a lake, data is stored in its raw, unprocessed form, mainly for use by data scientists.
There have been many powerful applications for pharma cloud computing discovered in the past 5-10 years. Some of its strengths, including scalability, operational efficiency, and data security, are very well matched to the computing needs of environmental monitoring systems that use networks of remote sensors. For this reason, Dickson leverages the cloud to store, process, and archive environmental monitoring data.
How Has Cloud Storage Improved the industry?
One of the effects of the COVID pandemic has been to catalyze the increased use of cloud technology. Organizations without a significant cloud presence prior to March of 2020 quickly recognized that cloud computing would be a necessity going forward. Some of the reasons for this are familiar to many of us, including the need to maintain business continuity while enabling remote work. During the pandemic, cloud systems allowed remote workers to remain productive and connected to their organizations.
Increased adoption of cloud technology has also been driven by the need for rapid advances in pharmaceutical technology, including the development and rollout of COVID vaccines. In healthcare, the greater use of telehealth (while maintaining HIPAA compliance) required additional advances, particularly in the area of data security in the cloud.
Turning specifically to environmental monitoring, the use of cloud technology can enable vast improvements in operational efficiency. For example, instead of downloading data from individual data loggers or chart recorders, environmental data (temperature, humidity, pressure, and others) can be automatically and continuously uploaded from sensors to the cloud. From there, the data can be monitored using a single, centralized platform that can be accessed remotely.
This system improves productivity by removing unnecessary burdens from onsite staff. In a healthcare setting, for example, moving to a cloud-based monitoring system eliminates the need for onsite staff to record or collect data from temperature monitors, allowing them to focus on more urgent and critical tasks.
Cloud systems, when properly designed and implemented, also improve efficiency by seamlessly ensuring regulatory compliance. The best pharma cloud computing platforms are designed to meet 21 CFR Part 11 guidelines, as well as the other regulations on data collection and archiving that can be checked during an audit.
When storing sensitive information, like patient records or manufacturing process data, security is a primary concern. If the proper safeguards are in place, data in the cloud is even more secure than data stored onsite. For sensitive applications, cloud services encrypt data and use firewalls to prevent unauthorized access. Furthermore, the organization using the cloud can provide access to data on an as-needed basis through user profiles, while pharma cloud computing facilities themselves can be located in access-controlled warehouses, preventing unauthorized physical access.
Why are Pharma Companies and Healthcare Systems Adopting Cloud Computing?
We can break down the reasons why pharma cloud computing is becoming more popular into a few categories:
- Scalability. Using cloud-based infrastructure means that you can easily scale data storage space with the dynamic needs of your business, without needing to invest in physical hardware.
- Traceability and data organization. This is particularly important for highly regulated industries. As an example, integrating monitoring hardware with a cloud-based platform allows the automatic collection of full, well-organized data sets, critical for ensuring validated processes are running in control, or troubleshooting issues like temperature excursions. Environmental conditions, for example, can be tied directly to specific individual batches of a product as they move through manufacturing and distribution.
- Visibility. When using a cloud-based data processing and storage model, data can be accessed from anywhere through a centralized platform.
- Security. As we discussed above, cloud computing systems can be made to be even more secure than onsite physical hardware, through access controls and other measures. An additional layer of security comes from regular backups of cloud-based data, meaning that local hardware failures won’t lead to data loss.
- Efficiency. Using cloud resources eliminates the complexity of maintaining onsite hardware, and can eliminate inefficient processes like transferring data using USB drives.
As we discussed earlier, in the last 5 years there has been a dramatic increase in the use of cloud-based infrastructure. Here are a few examples of its increasing use in healthcare and pharmaceuticals:
- The healthcare industry has shifted towards greater use of cloud storage for patient records, which allows more effective collaboration between providers. Cloud storage systems are also used for environmental monitoring, either in single hospitals or across entire facility networks.
- In pharmaceutical and biotech, cloud resources are increasingly used in the early stages of R&D, notably in computational drug discovery, where complex computer-based models are used to design and virtually screen new drugs.
- Dickson systems use cloud infrastructure to store and process environmental monitoring data. For example, in a warehouse used to store sensitive pharmaceutical products, a set of temperature monitors (data loggers) placed throughout the space can continuously upload data to a remote server. Users with the right permissions can access the data using the web-based DicksonOne platform, quickly reviewing temperature data across the entire set of monitoring points, and identifying any that are out of spec. Customized alerts can also be set up in the platform, so that a phone call, SMS text, or email message is immediately sent to selected personnel when a user-defined limit is exceeded on any sensor.
Cloud computing and in particular cloud-based storage is becoming increasingly popular with companies operating in the pharma/biotech and healthcare space, because of its many strengths compared to onsite data storage. Our state-of-the-art DicksonOne platform takes advantage of these strengths, combining environmental monitoring hardware with cloud computing to offer reliable, efficient, and scalable systems.
Questions about setting up or upgrading a cloud-based environmental monitoring system? Contact the experts at Dickson.