Cloud Security FUD Drives Genomics Industry towards Cloud-in-a-Box

Within the tech world, there are many who argue for widespread adoption of the cloud. The argument typically goes something like this: Cloud cloud cloudy cloud agility flexibility scalability cost savings cloud. 

And you have to admit, it can be a compelling argument.

But what if, for whatever crazy reason, you don’t want to go to the cloud?

Cloud FUD, a hot topic at this year’s Bio-IT World Conference and Expo in Boston, remains prevalent among enterprise organizations. Cloud security concerns are paramount, and the health and life sciences industry – particularly the genomics field – is no exception.

“Generally speaking, the cloud is okay…” Gianfranco de Feo, VP of marketing for Bina Technologies, told me in an onsite interview, but for clinical researchers, “the cloud is often a non-starter.”

Regulatory compliance, cloud security, and data accessibility pose challenges

The nephophobia of the life sciences and genomics industries is perfectly reasonable. Between a mess of privacy and security rules under the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a host of additional federal regulatory standards applying to a broad range of US laboratory testing on humans under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), the EU’s Data Protection Directive (to be replaced over the course of the next two years by the General Data Protection Regulation), other specific national regulations in emerging markets such as Brazil, a plethora of IT security framework standards, a lack of high-speed Internet in several parts of the world, and general antipathy toward cloud providers in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA and GCHQ spying, it can be tempting for a health or life sciences organization to just darn the whole thing to heck and stick with localized IT for safety’s sake.

Data accessibility creates challenges, too. John Quackenbush, Harvard bioinformatics professor and this year’s Bio-IT World keynote speaker, offered this dialogue to exemplify the problem:

“Our data is really secure because it’s in the cloud.”


“Because nobody can find it.”

Genomics and the life sciences move to the anti-cloud

Rather than fighting tooth and nail with fraidy-cat companies and their conservative legal departments, a growing number of B2B tech companies operating in the health and life sciences space are catering to (some cloud evangelists might say “enabling”) this clientele by offering local alternatives that can replace the cloud while offering the same software, platform, and infrastructure solutions. The on-premises “boxes” they provide typically feature their own operating systems, databases, researcher-friendly GUIs, and other specialized software. What they don’t feature are the cloud security unknowns that plague the public cloud.

The cloud-in-a-box approach is not quite new. Several companies, including Microsoft and some of its partners, have offered similar solutions for a couple of years now, such as Windows Azure Appliance. What is remarkable is how the life sciences field – notorious for its increasingly ravenous demands for bigger data, faster– is embracing the approach.

Researchers and clinical IT workers are burdened with a number of regulatory, ethical, and security concerns about patient confidentiality. On top of that, many have what de Feo terms a “psychological” barrier – “whether perceived or real” – when it comes to considering a cloud solution.

“They are not…ready,” said de Feo. “Those are the reasons [why] we’ve gone to an appliance from a market perspective.”

“Anti-cloud” solutions for life sciences and genomics enterprises

At Bio-IT World, Bina presented two versions of its “anti-cloud” Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) appliance: an enterprise-grade server and a desktop version with lower throughput needs. Bina is not abandoning the cloud market, however. The company also unveiled the Bina Annotation Platform, a PaaS solution for annotating and filtering large sets of NGS data in real time. What’s more, even though Bina’s turnkey appliances can operate independently of the cloud, they can still work with the company’s cloud platform.

Jeff Kenkel, a health and life sciences consultant for Hitachi Data Systems, gave his take on why these cloud-independent boxes such are in demand.

“It has a personality,” said Kenkel – specifically, a personality custom-suited for the customer’s needs.

Technology heavyweights like Hitachi, IBM, and Intel are also getting into the turnkey appliance market.

Intel, for instance, has collaborated with Massachusetts life sciences IT consultancy firm BioTeam on the latter’s SlipStream Appliance. The SlipStream Appliance exists in numerous models; a version of BioTeam’s SlipStream has even been adapted for Seven Bridges Genomics, a bioinformatics company in Cambridge, MA. The company seems to hope that this new turnkey appliance, which it unveiled at Bio-IT World and plans to ship this summer, will help it capture overall market share.

“What we really developed is an operating system that runs for genomics [and is] kind of agnostic to…the computational resources,” said Kate Blair, director of product management for Seven Bridges, in a phone interview when pressed on what the company’s long-term goals were for the Seven Bridges Appliance. “We really don’t see a huge difference [performance-wise],” Blair related, comparing how the operating system runs locally on the Seven Bridges Appliance versus in its cloud deployment.

So what is the true industry value of these boxed antitheses to the cloud?  Data organization and accessibility seem key. Stan Gloss, BioTeam’s CEO, likens the state of the genomics industry to an old hard disk. “Disk drives don’t like fragmented pieces,” said Gloss in an interview. By standardizing genomics computing, Gloss contends that standardized turnkey consoles like the SlipStream Appliance are “defragging the industry,” just as one would defrag a hard disk to make it run better and faster.

“This is what this industry needs,” said Gloss. “It needs to be defragged.”

De Feo, meanwhile, for all of his optimism about his company’s products, still has his doubts – considering the increasingly popular (and increasingly hyped) venue that is the cloud.

“[I]n these lagging markets, when will [cloud-in-a-box] become the norm?” de Feo rhetorically lamented. “[T]hat may be years[.]”

In closing his keynote address, Quackenbush offered a William Gibson quote to describe concerns like de Feo’s yet more succinctly:

“The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”

Continued in Part 2

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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