May 3, 2011

Oracle’s Vertical Line to Life Sciences, Healthcare

Nicole Hemsoth

Oracle is finding a way to carve out a space in the overgrown cloud ecosystem by focusing on the needs of healthcare and the life sciences. While there are already a number of companies that have targeted these two lucrative markets (yet complex in terms of regulation, stringent privacy mandates, etc.) they claim that their vertical approach to cloud computing will serve this area particularly well.

In essence, the newest addition to Oracle’s cloud push is focused on compliance and the coming merger between healthcare and health research. Clinical and pharmaceutical research, healthcare analysis and delivery, medical center operations—even management of outside contractors—all of these are to be unified in one HIPPA-hip package.

Oracle describes its Health Sciences Cloud (OHSC) as a “vertical cloud serving the research needs of the healthcare and life sciences industries that is open to the public Internet for global access by thousands of sites in different organizations, with data and integrations flowing in and out—yet it is still highly secure and private.”

Sounds like quite a tall order, doesn’t it?…Having thousands of end points, several types of applications with varying demands, and many more thousands of end users–while remaining “private.”

Before we ask questions about “how” this happens, the “what” behind the OHSC is worth mentioning—specifically the term “vertical cloud.” Yes, another variation on IaaS or PaaS—just when it seemed like companies were cooling on the idea of putting any number of adjectives in front of the word cloud…

The vertical cloud concept refers simply to a market or industry that can be served via infrastructure that provides operational support through a network of automated services. This stands in contrast to a horizontal cloud, which is what we discuss most often (Amazon’s EC2 or Azure, for instance). Basically, when you use an IaaS or PaaS provider, you’re going in expecting that service to cater to a broad range of users with vastly different applications, usage patterns, etc.. For this reason it’s flexible; send out an API call, set up your vm and storage environments and you’re off.

A spokesperson for Oracle said that when combined with their Health Sciences Cloud Apps, “the Health Sciences Cloud will help health sciences organizations accelerate IT deployments, reduce resources required to maintain IT infrastructure and gain a predictable IT spending pattern.” Again, all of this merging creates a complicated situation on levels far beyond simple  IT or cost management, but this is one focused push that might find a willing ear.

Oracle sees nothing wrong with the one-size-fits-all model for the ordinary folk without mounting compliance headaches, but insists that healthcare and life sciences requires something far more tailored. And they are quite likely right—after all, provisioning an application then shutting it down is one thing when you’re testing a consumer-driven creation on EC2, for instance. However, throw in a little legally restricted material (DNA, patient information, and even sensitive drug discovery data) and the situation is far more complicated. Can you do all of your regulatory-heavy work on EC2? Yes—but you’re asking for trouble, at least according to Oracle.

They point to an example of how clinical research in the life sciences is guided by a wide range of IT policies, including validation measures for installation qualifications. Users of any service, cloud or otherwise, need to make sure they have all components and software properly up to date, follow set system parameters, have a defined set of file structures, directories and databases, not to mention extensive setup of security profiles.

Oracle claims that their vertical cloud service will take all of these variables into account, factoring in requirements across a wide range of regulation sources. Interestingly, they note that since users will need to conform to an Installation Qualification, some of their freedom to stealthily ignore regulations will be removed.

The line between vertical and horizontal clouds becomes a little clearer when you think about this layer of required conformity to standards. That’s something a general provider could never offer, after all. Furthermore, Oracle claims that this setup will tackle this vertical’s needs by “exploiting an underlying cloud-oriented platform or infrastructure services, thereby enjoying the benefits of a horizontal cloud—resource pooling, elasticity, broad network access, managed services, etc.” In other words, by handling everything from initial qualification then automation, monitoring, recording, and other activities, life sciences researchers and companies can be freed from some major hassles—even if they have to lose the freedom to ignore mandates.

The problem with “regular” clouds is that they’re designed to have more or less a “one size fits all” model—and that’s a great thing…just not for this market. Oracle is thus pitching both infrastructure and platform as a service together in a way that caters to a focused range of applications—all running on a super-secure set of SAS70 Type II compliant machines in Tier III data center facilities. They are setting forth SLAs that are comparable to other managed hosting services, including 99.9% uptime and availability, secure networks that are geographically optimized for the latency-conscious, and a bevy of other assurances that there is an army of security buffs behind the IT operations.

It probably comes as no surprise either, by the way, that the systems are making use of Oracle software and hardware. The company reports that their infrastructure includes their Fusion Middleware, Exadata Database Machine, and their Sun-made ZFS Storage Appliance.

To back up for a moment though–even if the notion of a vertical cloud isn’t striking in itself (since after all, like so many cloud stories it’s all just managed services for a target market) Oracle’s reasoning behind approaching life sciences research and healthcare is compelling. In addition to rapid improvements in biomedical data gathering and constantly shifting legislation that makes dealing with such data constant juggling act, they note that there is a growing convergence that’s blending life sciences and healthcare into a cocktail called ‘personalized medicine.’

There’s a lot of talk about this new way of thinking about the merger between research and individual medicine and Oracle certainly wants to board the ship while it’s still docked. The other event on the horizon is easy to see: increasing complication of the entire merged ecosystem—what happens when you mesh two formerly disparate fields?

Their message must be hitting home since the release of the cloud apps. The OHSC has a reported 3,800 application instances supporting hundreds of thousands of users and millions of transactions daily in over 100 countries.

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