Will my eClinical data be available when I need it? Part 4 of key questions to ask an eClinical SaaS Vendor.

In this fourth part of the series on “Key Questions to Ask an eClinical SaaS Vendor” we will review and discuss the vendor’s responsibility for data availability and application health.

For the purposes of this post we will use two definitions, both of which are critical to SaaS based applications:

  • AvailabilityThis refers to the ability for a user to connect to the application in a reasonable amount of time.  For example, using your browser to login to the application is typically proof that the application is available.
  • HealthThis refers to the ability of the application to respond to the user’s requests, such as viewing a particular page of data, generating a report, updating a record, etc.  Typically the application and the database both need to be in a healthy state in order to properly respond to user requests.

When your eClinical data is stored within a Software-as-a-Service based application in the cloud (i.e. outside of your personal computer and internal company network), it is common to be concerned about downtime or technical issues that could prevent you from accessing your data.  After all, most of us have encountered network outages or system downtime that has blocked us from using web-mail, social networking sites, or other web apps.  So what is your SaaS vendor (a.k.a. service provider) doing to maximize the chance that your eClinical data will be available whenever you need it?

One of the inherent risks of SaaS based services is the physical separation between users and their data.  There are many potential points of failure when accessing a web based service: your connection to the Internet (be it at work, at home, or on the road), the connectivity of the server (i.e. data center), and the health of the server and database, to name a few.  Fortunately, competent SaaS providers are likely to use a variety of tools to minimize any potential issues, and allow them to respond quickly if problems occur.

Here are some questions to ask an eClinical SaaS provider:

  • If the application becomes unavailable, will you know about it before I have to call you?
    With the gamut of cost-effective web-monitoring tools that are available to administrators, the service provider should know about an outage before you call the support desk.  Web monitoring tools can easily check that an application is available and healthy on a frequent basis, such as every 5 minutes or less.
  • Is the application available 24x7? How frequent is your scheduled downtime?
    It is typical for modern SaaS based applications to be available 24x7.  It is also typical for a SaaS vendor to have a small and reasonable amount of scheduled downtime, to perform maintenance and upgrades.  However, consider whether the vendor is minimizing the impact to your productivity when scheduling down time.  For example, it is common for vendors to perform maintenance and upgrades during overnight and weekend hours, when minimal client use is likely.  In any case, ensure they have a clear communication plan for scheduled downtime, so that you and your team will be aware and prepared for it.
  • Are you monitoring the availability of the application from my geographic location?
    Just because a vendor says “it works fine for me” from the West Coast of the U.S., does not guarantee availability for a customer on the East Coast.  There can be regional Internet problems that effect certain locations.  There are many web-monitoring services available that allow a service provider to ensure that users across the country or across the globe, have proper availability to the application.
  • Do you proactively monitor the health of the application and database?
    Proactive monitoring tools are widely available, and they are critical if your vendor expects to be aware of problems before users encounter them.  For example, if a hardware issue has slowed the database to a crawl, a system monitor should detect the issue quickly and send a notification message or email to the vendor’s support team.  Their goal should be to identify and begin working toward resolution, before the customer is significantly impacted.
  • If I get an error message or experience application problems, are you automatically notified?
    Sometimes the application and database are working fine, until a particular user request causes an error. This is another scenario where many tools and services exist that can be utilized by vendors to automatically receive notification of errors.  That enables the vendor to resolve issues in an expedient fashion, even if you are too busy to notify them of the problem.
  • If and when an availability or health problem does occur, what is your response plan?
    A competent vendor should have a general plan at the ready, in case a significant availability or health problem occurs (this may be covered in a “Disaster Recovery” plan, as discussed in a previous post).  Many problems related to health and availability do have workarounds, depending on the flexibility and portability of the server platform.  The vendor should also have a communication plan in place, for notifying customers about significant problems, and keeping them up to date as they work toward resolution.

These questions will help you assess the competencies and priorities of a SaaS vendor in these areas.  There is no set of “correct” answers for these questions, but the answers you get will help you determine whether the service provider is a good fit for your requirements. 

At Trial By Fire Solutions, we are happy to further discuss our strategies for data health and availability via SimpleCTMS: our flexible, secure, SaaS-based Clinical Trial Management System (CTMS).

For a product demo, or to find out more, please contact us.  As always, we welcome your feedback.  Stay tuned for the next post in this series, where we will discuss eClinical change control procedures.