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The Implications of Using Open Source Platforms in Pharma

Guest Blogger

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The days of monolithic, proprietary software systems are waning. As the U.S. economy struggles to rebound, businesses — including major global pharmaceutical companies — are looking for every advantage and cost savings they can find. It is no surprise, then, that more and more pharmas are looking to open source technology as a means to deliver more value for less money.

For the purposes of this post, “open source” describes any platform whereby the developer has complete access to the source code to modify as they see fit. This definition obviously neglects the topic of software license … but, well, it’s my post, so I can do that. Besides, I don’t like talking about all that legal stuff, anyway. Further, this post is not meant to be all-inclusive of the pros and cons of using open source in the enterprise. I’m only addressing a few topics because these topics are the ones that we discuss around the water cooler most often when it comes to our pharmaceutical marketing clients.

What Is the Need?

Before a business decides on an open source product as a solution, it’s a really, really, really good idea to clearly define what the problem is. I know — this doesn’t just apply to open source projects. We often fall in love with (or at least obsess over) the latest blog engine/framework/hotness and then view the world through the lens of this new, sparkly rainbow. If you only have a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, no?

A pharma business, as well as any agency or freelancer supporting that business, should first seek to truly understand the business problem that is being addressed. What is the challenge/opportunity? How will this new blog/site/portal/tool support brand objectives? What features are required (must-haves)? What features are important but optional? Even more important is the question: How does this project and platform fit within the greater scope of projects and systems that the pharma company uses? If a company is heavily invested in Windows and .NET, then choosing Laravel, hosted on an Ubuntu box, might not be a good choice (though it REALLY pains me to say that).

Without this clarification, there is little reason to proceed.

Configurable != Customizable

I’ve witnessed the common mindset of, “We have the source code; we can make it do anything we want it to do.” But I beg you instead to STOP. Think.

Just because you can customize a platform, doesn’t mean you should."

A configurable feature is not the same thing as a customizable feature.

Repeat that to yourself three times.

Let’s take WordPress, as an example. We know that pharma companies, due to government regulation and a risk-averse culture, have complicated review processes where medical, legal and regulatory (MLR) reviewers weigh in on any outward-facing promotional materials. These committees are responsible for ensuring all brand communications are in compliance with the myriad of federal regulations and company policies. With many features being configurable, a site developer can sometimes just select options that will satisfy any MLR concerns, but more often, out-of-the-box functionality just won’t cut it for pharma.

A configurable feature is not the same thing as a customizable feature.

From the text of emails telling a user that a comment is being held for moderation, to the type and nature of elements required to register before commenting, these companies must have complete control over the platform. When using something like WordPress, the out-of-the-box features — although good for most of the business world — just aren’t quite good enough. With this in mind, it often becomes necessary to customize every aspect of a site before the MLR committee will approve it. Keep this in mind when you build a website for a regulated industry.

With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility

I like Spider-Man. This theme that power and responsibility go together is very appealing.

In the open source world, this credo holds true. If you choose to use an open platform and then choose to customize the core of that platform to suit your needs, you may as well just fork the project onto GitHub and start your own branch. In many cases, you may have made your implementation of said project un-upgradeable. If you need to alter the core of the platform, you’d better have a very good reason for doing so. Further, you should be aware that it can be the programmatic analogue to Cortez burning his ships upon reaching the new world. You’ve just committed to this platform, and you’d better have the financial, intellectual and political resources and resolve to see it through. Essentially, if you customize a feature, you better be able to “un-customize” that same feature if, in the future, the need arises.

If you really need to alter the core of an established platform, then maybe that platform isn’t the right one for you after all.

Community Support

Two things here:

First, community support is not the same as free programming and troubleshooting. Second, in a mature platform, few problems are unique and have never been seen.

When choosing an open source platform, check out the community. How large is it? How easy is it to find competent developers? How active is the community? Do they have a voice in the developmental roadmap of the project? These answers, while not an adequate justification by themselves, can offer some measure of risk mitigation.

Don’t be selfish, though. Contributors, not consumers, build a great community. If you find value in the product you are using, and if you’ve built in a feature that has helped you solve a business problem, give that feature solution back to the community by making the code (abstracted, of course) available on GitHub or some other code-sharing platform.


The tension in the business climate will continue to spur innovation and adaption. No doubt, the open source movement will only gain more traction and use within regulated industries.

Is your pharmaceutical company looking to a solution for its next business opportunity? Before you jump on the open source bandwagon, take a moment to consider these implications.


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