Pharma Grids Facing Obstacles Aplenty

By By Derrick Harris, Editor

June 20, 2005

If you haven't had the chance to read The 451 Group's recently released report on Grid adoption in the pharmaceutical industry, don't panic. GRIDtoday editor Derrick Harris spoke with Steve Wallage, director of research at The 451 Group, about it. Although he doesn't give away all the information contained within the report's pages, Wallage does offer great insights into who's using Grids, why some are not and what vendors can do to get a foothold in this potentially large Grid market.

What is the overall conclusion of the report? What does the adoption of Grid in the pharmaceutical market look like?

STEVE WALLAGE: After speaking with several pharmaceutical and biotech firms about their current and future strategies for deploying Grid into the enterprise, The 451 Group found that some of the leading pharmaceutical companies have established significant Grid deployments for drug discovery, but for a majority of them the jury is still out regarding the broader value of Grid computing. A need for high-performance computing makes the pharmaceutical sector a natural adopter of Grids, but we found that compared with other industries, such as financial services, the pharmaceutical sector is behind when it comes to broader deployments.

Some pharmaceutical firms have made great strides in Grid adoption, moving quickly from small Grids, usually based around cycle scavenging, to thousands of devices. The leaders — like Johnson & Johnson and Novartis, for example — are now looking at sharing infrastructure across their companies and putting enterprise IT applications on Grids. But the majority of pharmaceutical firms hear the hype around the early adopters and have yet to identify a compelling reason to adopt Grid technology.

Bottom line: Despite all the claims made around the benefits of Grid deployment, there has yet to be a drug discovered this way.

Gt: Clearly, some pharmaceutical companies are unconvinced of the benefits Grid computing can bring. What are some of the main reasons for this skepticism? What are some of the major obstacles to Grid deployment?

WALLAGE: For those pharmaceutical firms that have not yet invested in Grid technology there are a number of reasons given. The top reason is that there are no compelling applications, meaning the company is not convinced of the benefits of running virtual docking algorithms on a Grid. Another reason is that the current distributed computing architectures work fine. For example, AstraZeneca was an early user of clusters, and it sees no reason to move to Grid technology. In addition, many pharma companies are reluctant to run applications across the PCs of researchers and the greater penetration of laptops was a particular problem.

The biggest obstacle to the pharmaceutical firms has been software licensing. The pharmaceutical firms have looked at various options to address this challenge, from license management to legal action. The ultimate issue is how much pressure the pharmaceutical firms can put on the ISVs in terms of licensing. The situation will improve, but it will probably take another 12 months before more Grid-friendly pricing is really introduced.

Another major obstacle to deployment is cultural issues, since those who make decisions about Grids are often not high up enough in the enterprise decision-making hierarchy, or they run autonomous R&D units. Other obstacles include the challenge of federated data applications and semantic integration. Integrating data that resides in multiple database sources as a result of M&A or the nature of research is a huge headache in this sector. Linking disparate offices is another challenge.

Gt: What are some of the main drivers of adoption?

WALLAGE: Although some pharmaceutical firms had invested in high-performance computing technology for target identification, others have relied on the PCs of researchers. Most companies have used clusters to increase performance, and linking PCs and servers in a Grid was a natural next step for some firms.

Overall, we've identified five main reasons for deploying a Grid:

  • For some early Grid adopters the hardware has come from dedicated server farms. For pharmaceutical firms Grid usage has mostly been about cycle scavenging. It has been about increasing utilization on existing devices.
  • Pharmaceutical companies see Grid technology as an opportunity to reduce hardware costs.
  • A particular weakness for some pharmaceutical firms' R&D operations has been the lack of sharing of information and analysis. Deploying Grid technology across the enterprise would increase cooperation and communication.
  • As with other early Grid users, many of the pharmaceutical companies claim the ability to do things quicker, and also the ability to do more complex analyses.
  • Pharmaceutical companies have been overwhelmed with Grid success stories and ISVs looking for them to try out the technology. In such a competitive and global industry as the pharmaceutical market, none of the major companies wants to risk missing out on a potentially transformational technology. This means even those companies that have yet to invest in a Grid deployment have at least carefully considered such an investment.

Gt: What companies are currently the “shining stars” of Grid adoption within the pharmaceutical market? Are there any companies with unique deployments that might be making news in the future?

WALLAGE: Early adopters such as Johnson & Johnson and Novartis are well ahead of other companies, and are likely to remain so as they seek to adopt Grid technology across all parts of their business. Johnson & Johnson stands out in terms of its vision of Grid technology and the breadth of usage. Meanwhile, Novartis is leading in terms of its PC Grid.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is currently doing some interesting work on data analysis and clinical modeling. Pfizer is as well. Sanofi-Aventis is leading in possible usage of semantic Web work.

Gt: If pharmaceutical companies are all aware of Grid computing, and still many aren't convinced of its value, what can vendors do to get them on board?

WALLAGE: Grid computing vendors face two challenges within the pharmaceutical sector: supporting those users which have established a beachhead for achieving enterprise-wide adoption, and making a better business case for Grid computing technology to the mainstream users. Instead of educating users, vendors need to have strong business arguments to convince them to move forward.

Vendors also need to be aware of some of the obstacles that pharmaceutical companies are facing with deploying Grid technology. Vendors need to be aware of the pain caused by drug discovery software licensing practices, and they need to work with the pharmaceutical ISVs and users to find ways around this issue.

With cultural issues being very complex and far-reaching in the pharmaceutical world, it would benefit vendors to be sympathetic to the needs of individual researchers and to look at best practices on gaining widespread employee support. Many vendors have done very well by selling to certain individuals — typically the head of IT for an R&D unit. This approach will only have limited success in the long term, though, and it has clear operational risks. Vendors need to reach out to central enterprise IT in order to gain wide visibility and support across other departments.

Gt: What Grid vendors are doing the best in selling their wares to in the pharmaceutical industry? How are smaller companies like United Devices and Platform performing versus giants like IBM and HP?

WALLAGE: Overall, the smaller Grid middleware players are the most associated with Grid deployments in the pharmaceutical sector. United Devices is particularly strong and has done a good job of securing sales and awareness among pharmaceutical firms. The company is the main provider to Johnson & Johnson and Novartis, two of the leading pharmaceutical companies in the market and the leaders in deploying Grids across their enterprise. Vendors need to be clear on how to work with, or against, United Devices.

Some other key players include IBM, who is often involved as a systems integrator and is also a close partner to United Devices. Platform Computing also has a number of deployments, while vendors such as DataSynapse and Altair are not yet on the radar.

Gt: It's my understanding that companies in all vertical markets often cite the difficulty of Grid-enabling applications as a major detractor in making the switch to Grid infrastructures. If more ISVs start Grid-enabling popular pharmaceutical apps, will we see a significant rise in adoption?

WALLAGE: It's true that the lack of Grid-enabled applications remains a problem not only in the pharmaceutical sector, but also for Grid computing more generally. In all, about 30 or so ISV applications in this sector are Grid-enabled. The tipping point to a procurement decision is how easily an application can be Grid-enabled, how many applications can be Grid-enabled, and what is the corresponding cost of Grid-enablement versus buying more hardware. Keep in mind that there is also a disconnect between what vendors claim and what users actually see as Grid-enabled.

As far as it causing a significant rise in adoption — it would certainly help. But software licensing issues also need to be addressed at the same time.

Gt: I find it peculiar that Globus is not very popular among the companies profiled, especially considering how popular it is in academic/research settings. Why do you think this is?

WALLAGE: We've found that there are some enterprise IT end users who have looked at the Globus Toolkit, but we have yet to come across any end users who have implemented it in a production environment. From users, we hear that they find Globus complex. The iteration is beyond them, and they don't know what to do with it. The immediate opportunity is for someone to define a stack. Enterprise IT end users say that there are too many Grid middleware stacks and that they would be happy to work with just one moving forward.

To some extent, pharmaceutical firms have chosen Linux and Oracle as de facto standards, but they have not settled on a standard Grid “stack” as such — so there is an opportunity for vendors and open source projects such as Globus to drive the development of this stack.

Gt: If pharmaceutical companies know that the major industry players like Pfizer, GSK and J&J are strong proponents of Grid computing, why haven't the others invested more heavily in order to reduce the competitive advantage these companies are likely experiencing?

WALLAGE: Most pharmaceutical firms have at least assessed Grid computing. All the major pharmaceutical firms continually evaluate Grids but the obstacles we mentioned continue to deter users.

Something very relevant to the potential use of Grid technology is the setup of many pharmaceutical firms' R&D operations. They tend to be autonomous units for two main reasons. One is that multiple units often exist as the result of M&A activity or to harness the strengths of a particular location, such as proximity to a university research department. The pharmaceutical firms want to maintain these units' autonomy in order to keep their effectiveness. The second reason is that the current thinking in the pharmaceutical world is that small R&D facilities are good. For example, GSK is setting up small Centers of Excellence for Drug Discovery, since it believes these groups, which can operate independently of central control, are far more likely to be successful.

It is also relevant to look at the research staff. The lack of IT skills among researchers can be seen in the fact that many get along very nicely in target identification and other drug discovery work without using any sort of computer model, let alone a Grid. For example, Eli Lilly reports that many of its researchers prefer to use tried-and-tested procedures — “wet research” — that don't involve any computerized modeling.

Gt: Where does the pharmaceutical industry stack up against other vertical markets in terms of Grid adoption?

WALLAGE: We found that compared with other vertical markets, such as financial services, the pharmaceutical sector is behind in terms of Grid adoption, especially in the depth and scope of adoption. In the financial services market, investment banks often have a clear roadmap with implementing service-oriented architectures as the ultimate goal. In the pharmaceutical market there are limited deployments, and typically R&D department-led Grid deployments, which limit Grid usage to a few drug discovery applications. Other verticals, with a broader and enterprise-focused view of Grids, are expected to expand their usage over the pharmaceutical users.

Gt: Finally, I'm wondering how what you foresee for the future of Grids in the pharmaceutical industry assuming there are no drug discoveries directly linked to Grid. How would a concrete example of a Grid-based drug discovery change things?

WALLAGE: Pharmaceutical companies are intensely competitive, but at this point, there is still a perception that it is safe to hold off on Grids or run very limited deployments. A Grid-based drug discovery or other compelling evidence of the benefits of Grid would certainly change this perception.

Gt: Is there anything else you would like to add?

WALLAGE: The main issue for many users is whether to spend on software like United Devices, or to get the software “free” and spend on hardware. Life sciences companies will increasingly be turning to open source technology as discovery pipeline budgets are throttled back. Most smaller pharmaceutical firms are already using open source technology in some fashion — either running Linux or running open source algorithms.

For more information about this report, please visit

About Steve Wallage

Steve Wallage is the director of research at New York-based The 451 Group — an independent technology industry analyst company focused on the business of enterprise IT innovation. For more information about the company, please visit its Web site at

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