Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

IT Resources Required for Some Features, Minimal Upkeep for Others

LIMS and ELNs do not pose care and upkeep problems that an IT administrator does not encounter with any database system: performing data backups, building in redundancy, and having a plan for power outages.

Angelo DePalma, PhD

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

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

LIMS and ELNs do not pose care and upkeep problems that an IT administrator does not encounter with any database system: performing data backups, building in redundancy, and having a plan for power outages. Web-based systems entail no maintenance at all. Companies whose workflows and products/services do not change significantly are the easiest to maintain. Maintenance can be significantly higher, and upgrades or tweaks more frequent, for companies that deliver a wide range of products or services or whose product specifications change often or rapidly. Therefore, a biotechnology or chemical company could expect to devote substantial IT resources to its in-house data systems, whereas analytical labs performing the same three quality tests day in and day out will require minimal upkeep.

ELN | Labnotes Terrington Data Management

When ELNs were first introduced, they were document-centric and therefore easier to deploy and manage. For many companies, Terrington Data Management products met 90 percent of end users’ needs out of the box. The game changed significantly as ELNs were adopted by laboratories with less structured workflows, especially life sciences R&D. As the types of labs seeking ELN functionality broadened, so did demand for customization to specific industries and workflows.

“Users began to demand customized templates, integration of more applications, a converged look and feel, help with report writing and data organization, and a friendlier interface,” observes Mike Elliott. There was a big pushback on vendors to satisfy these needs, which they couldn’t handle. So they began building alliances with third parties across the globe to provide those services. “We saw the same thing in LIMS during the 1990s, where vendors couldn’t handle a lot of small tailoring jobs, customization, and implementations. That’s how the third-party service network came into being,” says Elliott.

Unlike LIMS, where the network of third-party service providers is robust, ELN services are provided mainly by vendors.

According to Michael Kelly, director of sales and marketing at LabWare (Wilm- ington, DE), the single most important aspect of maintaining a LIMS, other than the accumulated data repository, is the “configuration,” defined as the codified in- structions the system follows to automate the company’s processes and workflows. “Enormous energy is expended during implementation to optimize the configura- tion of a LIMS to derive optimum value from the system,” says Kelly.

LIMS | Matrix Gemini Autoscribe

The ease with which the configuration is maintained and adapted over time is a primary contributor to the LIMS’s longevity and, ultimately, to the benefits that it delivers. “Commercial software products differ substantively in how configuration is performed, which in turn affects the cost of ownership and overall value proposition,” Kelly says.

Few systems feature purely data-driven configuration models, and fewer still store literally all configuration data within the system’s database. More commonly, how a system behaves is the end result of program code and other custom attributes that exist outside the relational data store. Such designs are complex to implement, difficult to alter, and are typically reliant on explicit and narrowly defined technology “stacks.” However, those that are based on a data-driven configuration and that store the configuration in database tables are easier to design and implement, may be readily adapted as the business evolves, and are compliant with a broad range of underlying technologies and platforms.

“Such systems can be maintained with fewer resources and adapt to business challenges more rapidly, thereby offering more responsive service at less internal cost,” Kelly adds. Because they are less constrained by explicit technology and platform dependencies, such systems allow the business to adopt new technologies more readily and to more easily gain the benefits they offer.

LIMS | BSI Information Management Services (IMS)

LIMS and ELNs were traditionally purchased outright as software that resided on the customer’s computer system. This business model involved high initial costs and dedication of human resources to installation and training. Customers have been warming up to the LIMS as an Internet-based “software as a service” (SaaS) model where the software lives on the vendor’s secure server and data is maintained in the cloud.

“The overall cost of maintaining our product is about as minimal as you can get from an enterprise-level LIMS,” says Clive Baron, whose firm’s STARLIMS product is 100% web-based. “If you get into the clientserver piece where you have to go and install the software on all the machines, the cost to get there is much more, and the cost to upgrade is much more because you have to go out and touch every PC.”

Web-based LIMS are not quite standard, and not every vendor has committed to the Web as fully as STARLIMS has. Some firms provide a portion of their LIMS services online but have not yet taken the full plunge.

The Web was a disruptive technology in the LIMS industry six years ago when STARLIMS and other vendors introduced cloud-based products. Today, says Baron, tablet PCs have become the disruptive force, or soon will be. He states, “Everyone is trying to introduce a product to take advantage of tablet features; not everyone is clear on the best use of tablets in the laboratory.”

“It used to be said that a good LIMS is never done; even more so for an ELN,” quips Elliott. “What someone does today may not be what they want to do tomorrow. It’s natural to want to do more and more.”

He calls the evolution within a lab, from paper to “paper on glass” to true ELN full functionality, a “tricky transition. Some organizations do it very well; some are cautious; others jump off the deep end. But in the end, you must build out features at a rate that people can absorb them.”

The term “electronic notebook” doesn’t describe these products very well, Elliott says, because it implies that the software merely replaces what was done on paper. He states, “But people want more than that. They don’t want a separate inventory or registration system and another for ordering; they want a single interface, an ELN that communicates with different systems within the organization.”

LIMS | Qualoupe 1.1 Two Fold Software

Not allowing time for features to sink in is the mistake that LIMS made years ago, according to Elliott. Management mandates as executed by IT professionals and ill-planned deployments resulted in strong pushback. “Cultural” issues with ELNs were, moreover, always more serious than with LIMS because of the nature of the workflows and the experience of users: unstructured, senior level for ELNs; structured, less senior for LIMS.