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9/14/2010
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InformationWeek 500: Eli Lilly Ties Future To Cloud

The pharmaceutical firm relies on the public cloud for compute-intensive scientific and drug development research and sees more extensive use of cloud computing as essential to its future.

Eli Lilly CIO Michael Heim talked about his firm's implementation of cloud computing for the first time at the InformationWeek 500 Conference in Dana Point, Calif. today. He said his company has found value in using Amazon's EC2 for bursts of research computing power. The cloud is now firmly embedded in Eli Lilly's approach to IT for the future and the company is exploring longer term uses in addition to offloading short term research jobs.

Heim and Michael Meadows, Eli Lilly's vice president and information officer, global information services, addressed InformationWeek 500 Conference attendees. They said their firm was banking on continuing to spend 20% of revenues on R&D and stretching that spend by exploiting the cost savings of cloud computing. Heim said data security would always be an issue, but Eli Lilly was able to send early research data into the cloud, combine it with other publicly available data such as genome research and execute a compute intensive analysis on Amazon's EC2 infrastructure.

The data being analyzed is "pre-regulation" data, said Heim. Analysis of clinical data assessing test results on particular pharmaceutical compounds is still performed in-house under more secure computing methods.

"We think the cost advantage is real and the complexity issue can be managed," Heim told the 370 attendees at the event. Eli Lilly made its first foray into cloud computing as its scientists sought quick and cheap horsepower with which to execute their studies. They often needed 800-900 CPUs for 850 megabytes of data over several hours to generate simulations or models of chemical interactions.

"Often it's a scientist at the workbench doing research who is taking the lead in moving our understanding of cloud computing forward," said Heim. But Eli Lilly IT has created 15 templates that make it easier for scientists to commission research servers in the cloud and authorizes scientists to self provision them with a minimum of IT interference.

"The cost is trivial in some cases for what they're doing. It's hard to overestimate the value of letting scientists work at their own pace," said Heim.

He was seconded by Meadows, who said, "The cost model is amazing in what it allows in procurement under defined limits of corporate credit card use," he said. EC2 users with an account can enter their credit card number and commission a workload at a rate of 8.5 cents an hour on a simple Linux server, 12 cents an hour on a Windows Server, or 22 cents an hour on a Red Hat Linux Server. Virtual servers with more memory and CPUs are available at higher rates.

Meadows said Eli Lilly has been using cloud computing for newly commissioned research workloads and shipped them off to the public cloud rather than buy more servers for the data center, a practice often referred to as "cloud bursting." But he said the firm was encouraged by that practice to look at longer term uses, where servers might be lined up for a certain number of hours of use over a year.

"I thought the extreme affordability was only in that temporary cloud bursting. But we've been costing it out over a 3-5 year period and there's benefit there as well," Meadows said. Just because a company has a long-term contract with a cloud vendor doesn't mean that it commissions servers and leaves them running 24 hours a day, as it would in its own data center. It can contract for hours and run jobs for a certain number of hours a day when they're needed, he said.

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