Loïc Giraud, Novartis (senior vice president digital delivery): “Snowflake is the key tool in our big data environment”

On the occasion of the annual Snowflake Summit, the editorial staff of Le Monde Informatique met Loc Giraud, senior vice president digital delivery at Novartis. The latter goes back to the integration of Snowflake solutions, their implementation and the challenges that come with it for a pharmaceutical company like Novartis.

“We are a pharmaceutical group, number 3 in the world, present in 150 countries and with more than 110,000 employees”, indicates Loïc Giraud, currently senior vice president digital delivery within Novartis, adding that “the mission of the company is to rethink medicine by using digital technologies to extend people’s lives”. The company, until then not very digitally oriented, actually faced a real upheaval when its CEO, Vasant Narasimhan , arrived in February 2018.

“When the new CEO came, he launched a new strategy. One of the five pillars of this strategy is to work on digital transformation,” he said. “So we started in 2018 with the creation of a CDO office, which made it possible to evangelize all digital areas for the organization and start in pilots in different sectors, in research, clinical development, production of medicines or even in sales and marketing” refers to Loïc Giraud, then manager of the business analytics center of excellence.

Formula One, the platform developed at Novartis

The teams managing this change within Novartis quickly realized the success of several pilots and the consequent increase in the number of platforms for entering and integrating information. “This is how we created a company platform called Formula One that integrates all company information” continues Loïc Giraud. The multicloud platform is hosted on AWS and Azure, especially for security issues. This defensive strategy responds to “one of the principles that Novartis had from the beginning, not to have a login to a cloud provider” he defined.

The platform quickly integrates Amazon’s Databricks and Redshift into its platform, but finds itself facing problems in some use cases. “During the conversation with Snowflake, the publisher explained to us that they can quickly resolve this by improving performance, which is not possible with Databricks”, specified this manager of the digital platform at Novartis. “We chose Snowflake mainly for performance reasons, because the amount of data it can handle is greater than what others offer.” From this use case in the company resulted 70 to 80 additional practical cases. “From now on, Snowflake is the main tool in our big data environment” sums up Loïc Giraud.

Turnkey solutions from Snowflake

Among the solutions adopted, Novartis specified that it uses Snowpipe, Snowflake’s continuous data feed service for managing, storing and processing its data. The company also adopted the publisher’s marketplace, “mainly to integrate the data” refers to Loïc Giraud, adding that it is very useful, “before we bought the data, but to integrate it we have to do it ourselves , while they are already there.”. A turnkey solution that dramatically addresses the issue of IT skills. While technical profiles are becoming a rare commodity, Snowflake’s solution fully meets them. “The getting data, entering it, and qualifying it takes time and money. Now they are ready, we just have to eat them. Documentation and testing time in a pharmaceutical company represents 30% of a project’s budget. If we remove that part, we can deliver the projects faster and it is a cost saving for the patient”.

Today, Novartis is part of the Snowflake ecosystem, and has 70 use cases in production and nearly 200 in various stages of development and testing. However, the teams working on the Snowflake marketplace need improvement. “We want more data providers to come and integrate the data. We are also trying to push another topic in their roadmap, we want them to work on the transaction side to use it as a database in the corresponding processes. Now, the it is mainly in the analytical part” indicates Loïc Giraud.

Ads that are going in the right direction

Hearing Novartis’ requests since the Snowflake Summit 2022 event in Las Vegas, the cloud data management platform announced that it is starting to work on the transaction side. “This is something that will help us a lot,” added Loïc Giraud. However, he believes there are still many improvements. “There are some integrations with external tools that should be simplified by positioning ourselves at the center of the data ecosystem. They need to encourage partners to provide solutions that align and integrate with Snowflake,” he commented. The 2022 edition of this event is also beneficial because more than 200 partners will be present.

In developing Snowflake solutions, Novartis hopes to address another problem. “We are interested in another topic, namely how end users can create their products instead of using computer engineers. To do this, we need to simplify the technologies and integrate them to anyone can use them, I call it self-service development” refers to this trained engineer. With 110,000 people spread around the world, the pharmaceutical company says that 80% of its IT is outsourced, representing 12,000 subcontractors. “Regardless of the number of subcontractors, the number of cases to be handled continues to increase, it is not viable to increase this outsourcing. It is absolutely necessary that employees in industrial organizations can use the solution that it to create their own product or in any case part of these products” he continued.

Multiplying solutions, good or bad idea?

“At AWS, we use a large part of the platform and its services: S3 storage, SageMaker, Glue, or even IoT Greengrass – a cloud service intended for the development, deployment and management of device software, etc. It is not used for all products but mainly for the storage part. In Azure, we have a stack of technologies mainly for the analytical part, including Synapse analytics, Data factory, and other products,” explained Loïc Giraud. “One of the principles we had from the beginning was that we wanted be multicloud so we can fall back on one if we have a problem with the other provider.”

In choosing the solutions, Novartis explained that it looked at which technologies were compatible within the platforms. “For example, Snowflake is one of the few solutions that can work with AWS or Azure or even GCP. It is completely transparent for the user” summarizes Mr. Giraud, noting in passing that “Databricks are almost the same thing”. The next step is to see which scenarios work best with which cloud provider and their added value. “80% of the data is in AWS and many data science use cases run in Azure, partly because we have a very big partnership with Microsoft. However, we try to avoid duplication of information and have a redundant part,” he concluded. In addition, the company indicates that it uses EBX software, a Tibco master data management tool.

In this portfolio of solutions, security is paramount and the dedicated team at Novartis is proof of this; With at least 400 people, they are prepared for cyberattacks and conduct exercises every quarter. Loïc Giraud remains divided, however: “I think it’s only a question of time, it’s not a question of if. No one can contain, it will happen at some point, that’s for sure”.

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