INSIGHTS on Data Management Systems: Integration and Interoperability
A drive toward more openness and accessibility
No topic is more salient when discussing LIMSs than integration, says Tom Dolan, sales director at RURO (Frederick, MD). “In the end, a LIMS must provide value as an essential data repository. If it doesn’t serve that function, then it cannot serve as an effective tool for automation, compliance, and disaster recovery. It all centers on integration.”
Traditional LIMSs suffered from a lack of versatility and adaptability to changing workflows. The number one complaint most users have is that significant changes must go through a lengthy process mediated by their IT staff, or the vendor’s, and almost always include time and money that were not originally allocated for the deployment.
“Some RURO LIMS 24/7 customers go through the process of developing advanced requirements with our staff, deploy the system, then realize six months later that they forgot to mention some other critical function, for example, tracking staff performance in addition to instrument scheduling.” Or perhaps adding capability like field sample collection or an app on a remote-access device (e.g., a phone or tablet) to alert off-site workers to adverse weather conditions.
According to Dolan, users’ existing IT staff should be able to modify and embellish the capabilities of his company’s LIMS 24/7 without going through the vendor. “If you mix application programming interface (API) with effective training, users should be able to integrate instruments post-implementation without contacting us. For example, they can set up external databases to automatically transmit data 24/7. Customers should not need to go back to the software provider to set up these integrations. You most likely have staff already who can work with API.”
Data formats have been a perennial hurdle for lab informatics and integration, as they often contain intellectual property. Historically, this caused a surge in proprietary formats, between which communication among instruments, and between instruments and LIMS/ELN, was impossible. We are now seeing much more openness and accessibility.
Top instrument companies have for many years attempted to remain vendor neutral and support each other’s data formats. The stark reality is that customers use instruments from multiple vendors. “It’s rare to walk in and find a lab is strictly Thermo Fisher or another vendor,” says Trish Meek. “We have to be realistic and manage the different data types from different vendors. It plays the other way too. If other vendors can’t get information into and out of our systems, they may not be able to sell an instrument into a lab that uses our LIMS. That is why we maintain ongoing conversations with all the vendors we can and continue to support their instruments’ file formats as they develop new equipment for our customer base.”
Interconnectivity and interoperability with instruments and other data systems are a “huge” component of return on investment, according to LABVANTAGE’s Smallmon. “In the early days making things talk to one another was a dream. Now connectivity is here, and it has produced massive time savings.”