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Consider a LIMS or ELN Replacement or Upgrade Carefully

Collaborative research is one of the justifications cited most often for acquiring lab data software. While such “soft” benefits are difficult to quantify, the “hard” benefits are easy to measure, after some digging.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

Angelo DePalma is a freelance writer living in Newton, New Jersey. You can reach him at

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ELN | Sciency | Ruro |

Collaborative research is one of the justifications cited most often for acquiring lab data software. While such “soft” benefits are difficult to quantify, the “hard” benefits are easy to measure, after some digging. According to data provided by PerkinElmer, installation of a PerkinElmer ELN at a global pharmaceutical firm reduced experimental setup by 24.5 percent and experiment write-up by 33.6 percent. This company saved 23,000 hours per year through “elimination of experimental failure” on such tasks as drawing chemical reactions, performing calculations, and importing data. “Although it requires collecting productivity data, elimination of waste is where true ROI occurs with ELNs,” says Clive Higgins.

Improvements of this magnitude hearken to what Waters’s Mark Harnois refers to as the Lean Six Sigma component of laboratory data systems. “Lean” originated in manufacturing but has crept into all aspects of “operational excellence.”

A good case can be made for upgrading a LIMS or ELN based solely on the software’s age. According to Higgins, the LIMS installation base is aging, with only around two percent of existing deployments dating from recent years. “About 70 percent of LIMS are ten years old,” says Higgins. One reason is that LIMS deliver specific “point” solutions, solving the same problems year in and year out.

Users may decide to upgrade or replace a LIMS or ELN for a variety of reasons. Rarely, workflows or instrument configurations change such that the old system is rendered obsolete. More frequently, the user is interested in adding some capability that is not present—for example, notebook-like functionality to a LIMS or sample tracking within an ELN.

But major software upgrades (versus new installations) entail substantial risks. Upgrades are costly, demand commitment from IT personnel, and may disrupt some operations. “A valid business case for upgrading a LIMS or ELN,” says LabWare’s Mike Kelly, “can only be made if ‘moving up’ can be accomplished by changing only the application code base while retaining the existing data repository and configuration. This enables the business to spend time and resources solely on leveraging increased sophistication that will provide new and increased value to the business.”

The business case diminishes to the extent that any of the historical data needs to be migrated or revalidated or the existing configuration must be reengineered. “Unfortunately, in many such scenarios, the extent of that erosion is so great that it is clear that a version upgrade is simply too costly or too complex,” Kelly adds. Conversely, systems that allow the business to upgrade the application “in place,” with no need for migration of existing data, preserve both the data repository and the existing configuration. The effect is that the testing and validation effort is reduced, the transition process occurs more rapidly and with less disruption to the business, and the benefits provided by the more advanced platform can be leveraged more effectively.

LIMS | Scientific Water and Environmental Thermo Fisher Scientific |


Convergence refers to the overlap of functionality between the LIMS and the ELN, which could reduce demand for either product under certain circumstances. Experts are split as to whether convergence is inevitable or even possible.

ELN/LIMS companies can affect convergence through several strategies, including adding functionality to their products and partnering with other software providers. LabArchives, for example, has integrated its software with GraphPad Prism (for scientific graphing and statistical analysis) and TreeStar’s FlowJo (flow cytometry analysis) packages. LabArchives’ ELN already captures some LIMS functionality. “As integration continues, many labs will make the ELN the hub of their laboratory workflow,” says Earl Beutler of LabArchives, while conceding that this strategy “will not address all desirable features.”

RURO bundles 40 percent of its Sciency ELN packages with FreezerPro, a RURO frozen-sample management package. FreezerPro is not as sophisticated as a full-blown LIMS, but, as Tom Dolan notes, not everyone needs a freestanding LIMS (e.g., RURO’s flagship LIMS247). “Although some features are missing, many users would find it difficult to distinguish the resulting functionality from a LIMS,” says Dolan.

Convergence is popular where QA/QC overlaps with other business functions, including R&D, says STARLIMS’s Clive Baron. “I think eventually, you’ll see a more general convergence, where ELNs and LIMS become a single product or part of an informatics platform with components of both,” says Baron.

Because its features are more easily duplicated, LIMS are more vulnerable than ELNs to “feature creep.” Rather than acquiring a new LIMS, some companies might add a quality management module to their ERP system. “Quality modules are cascading down into traditional LIMS territory,” says Higgins. Installing an already compatible module reduces the number of vendors, which is highly desirable.

“People in R&D don’t want a big, heavy LIMS in many cases,” says Atrium’s Mike Elliott. “They can start out with an ELN and add workflow functions, the ability to manage structured data, or track samples. It’s not the ideal way to go about it, but that is how the market is evolving.”

The overlaps have not gone unnoticed by vendors, who have embarked on an acquisition spree of their own to capture technologies serving disparate markets and companies and both structured and unstructured data. In some cases, they offer both products separately; in others, as integrated applications. “The vendors are defending turf as well as expanding capabilities,” Elliott comments. “We’re seeing the ELN companies coming from one direction trying to fit into more structured data and LIMS vendors trying to add ELN-like flexibility. You don’t necessarily get the best in breed by going to these integrated converged solutions, but many users perhaps don’t need all those features; the converged products may be good enough.”

“It’s natural to question why a laboratory needs two distinct data systems,” observes Dominic John, who sees the “general convergence” of the two software packages. “When you look at what people ask for—low cost of ownership, simplicity, centralized systems—that cuts against the grain of having a LIMS and an ELN because multiple systems create cost and complexity.” He predicts that within a decade, users can expect to see a unified system that might be called a LIMS or an ELN “or something different” that will manage primary data as well as provide workflow capability according to each customer’s needs.

ELN LabArchives | LabArchives

Not everyone agrees that convergence is in the cards. The notion of supplying LIMS and ELN functionally in a single software package does not resonate with consultant Bruce Pharr, who calls attempts at integration “limited in terms of specific applications and operational scale.” LIMS and ELNS, he notes, are designed to solve two very different data management problems to distinct end-user populations. “While a single package may address a very narrow range of applications on a small operational scale, most organizations are better off integrating LIMS and ELNs as separate programs,” says Pharr.

Thermo Scientific’s Trish Meek concurs. “ELNs have evolved as being the application within which scientists work, while LIMS have evolved as a tool for managing laboratory processes. They present different strengths,” she says.