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.
One issue that's hard to resolve is the cost of moving large data sets into the cloud, for which there is a bandwidth charge. Frequently the data set becomes larger as other data is added to it. The user then faces a dilemma: moving data out of the cloud is more expensive than moving it in, leaving some to conclude that one can end up trapped in cloud expenses. "We're still evaluating the cost of data flow back and forth," said Meadows.

But Heim reaffirmed that cloud computing has been asset for Eli Lilly's R&D. The firm spends 20% of revenues on developing and evaluating clinical tests that may result in a successful new drug; bringing a new drug to market now costs as much as $1 billion per drug, he said. Patents on some of its existing moneymakers are due to expire soon, and generic lower cost substitutes will appear. Other pharmaceutical firms were growing by acquisition, but Eli Lilly will keep investing in its own research, Heim said. "When revenue is declining, it's important we do everything we can to reduce the cost of the development phase. Anything we can do to bring down costs will help us put more candidate pharmaceuticals in the pipeline," he pipeline.

Prior to adopting cloud computing, Eli Lilly had filled its two data centers and "we didn't want to build another." Going out into the cloud, combined with server virtualization in-house, has eliminated the prospect that they would have to build a third center.

Eli Lilly recently made headlines when it was reported in a dispute with Amazon on over service level agreements available on EC2. Eli Lilly was allegedly seeking greater assurances of server availability, and Amazon was refusing. Amazon CTO Werner Vogels eventually issued a tweet that said Eli Lilly remained a customer and no ongoing dispute separated the two parties.

Asked about that report, Heim resorted to citing the locker room dialogue between a player and a reformed sports agent, played by Tom Cruise, in the movie, Jerry McGuire. What sounded like an argument to bystanders was a way of communicating between two strong-willed parties. The exchange ends up: "I think we're finally talking."

Heim said Eli Lilly was concerned about being locked in to any cloud vendor, but any lock-in dangers were offset by the benefits. Meadows mentioned discussions with three cloud vendors, Savvis, BlueLock and Amazon. But Eli Lilly is currently engaged in cloud computing only with Amazon, and he was vague about the nature of any future business with Savvis and BlueLock.

An immediate future possibility is collaboration in the cloud with other pharmaceutical researchers. Eli Lilly is exploring the possibility of a network of collaborative firms but stopped short of predicting an industry-specific form of cloud computing might emerge.

Nevertheless, Heim says cloud computing is essential to Eli Lilly's future. It's competitiveness relies on unleashing the creative research powers of its scientists and producing new products. IT's role must change in the face of the changing needs of the business. "We're trying to change the IT mindset from saying 'no' to the right way to say 'yes.'" FURTHER READING:

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