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INSIGHTS on Data Management Systems: Operating in the Cloud

Allowing democratized access to advanced data products

Angelo DePalma, PhD

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

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Cloud-based LIMSs are part of an evolution, from do-it-yourself to employing outside IT service groups to having the software and cloud storage provider do all the heavy lifting, profiting from the economy of scale transparently and behind the scenes. As lab data products become more flexible, more suite-like, customers can pick and choose the modules they need, as they would with a set of office applications. The subscription model ensures that companies consume only the services they need, at the appropriate scale. Hardware investment similarly becomes minimal when processing and storage occur off-site.

And because they are subscription-based and scalable, cloud-based services also have democratized access to advanced data products. Organizations, including academic laboratories that would not have considered acquiring data software, can now participate.

One objection to cloud-based services generally is the belief that data is less secure than it is when stored on-site. In fact the opposite is true. “Do you keep your money under your mattress or in a bank?” asks Alan Vaughan of LabLynx.

Enterprise Informatics Service / i3D Shimadzu / Wayne Verost, president of QSI (Ramsey, NJ) is even more blunt: “It is as easy to break into someone’s internal network as it is to compromise a cloud-based service.” In an effort to cut back on IT expenses, most large companies have already moved data services off-site. The cloud has simply removed geographic limitations.

QSI offers two Windows-based LIMS products, including one in a cloud format. “It’s the same software. The only difference is where it’s located,” Verost says.

Inspired by services from Microsoft, Apple, and Google, laboratories are increasingly exploring the potential of cloud computing to enhance the versatility and productivity of their LIMS software, according to Clive Baron, chief business development officer at STARLIMS (Hollywood, FL).

“It is no longer unusual for an IT RFP to include cloud questions,” Baron says. “We see strong demand for cloud services, and customers say they are enthused about the potential of the cloud to reduce hardware or software purchases and to eliminate the need to reconfigure existing system infrastructure. The cloud significantly reduces time required to begin a project and saves resources otherwise expended for hardware purchases or IT support staff.”

Data security is the leading concern expressed by customers considering a cloud-based system. To ensure optimal data protection, STARLIMS Cloud Services encrypts data in transit and at rest to make sure that all information remains intact. Data is stored in a secure, cloud-based infrastructure and is delivered, managed, and accessed via the STARLIMS application.

Earlier this year Shimadzu (Columbia, MD) partnered with Integrated Analysis (Bethesda, MD) to introduce the i3D Enterprise Informatics Service. The subscriptionbased cloud product facilitates data capture, storage, and reporting from any digitally enabled lab device or operation. The i3D tagline—Your Lab Can Now Do What the “Biggest” Labs Do, Only: 100x Faster Computing, 1/5th Cost, and Zero Installations—could be the epitaph of conventional organization-wide scientific data management software. Or at the very least, it points to where this field is heading: nimble, scalable, distributed, integrated, vendor-neutral, cloud-based, browser-accessed data repositories that communicate with everything in the lab.

Is this just another cloud-based LIMS or ELN? “That’s a good question,” answers Scott Kuzdal, PhD, Life Science business manager at Shimadzu. “It resembles a LIMS, but it goes one step beyond that, and beyond cloud-based storage as well.”

Through i3D data automatically migrates to a private cloud maintained by Integrated Analysis. Kuzdal claims speeds 100x faster than local PCs for accessing and querying, which frees computers to capture more data. “It changes how people work with instruments and PCs.”

The idea of i3D arose at Integrated, which noticed that laboratories do many of the same things, except they apply different algorithms, filters, and search engines. So the company created modules for specific operations. “Any command line-driven program can be made into a module and represented on the desktop,” Kuzdal explains. Modules control data conversion, searching, or any other type of query or manipulation. One such module invokes the Mascot search engine, which identifies proteins from their fragmentation patterns in a mass spectrometer. Dozens of specialized scientific search engines exist, and many of them are free or close to it.

Kuzdal says the i3D platform will eventually allow organizations that conduct proteomics, genomics, and metabolomics on different instruments from different vendors through proprietary applications to coexist and even collaborate within a unified, cloud-based platform.

The other advantage is speed. In addition to freeing up desktop computers and more powerful servers, complex searches such as matching protein digests to fragment libraries can benefit from having up to 100 processors working on the problem; in other words, much faster results for critical experiments. “What used to take two months can now be done in less than a day,” Kuzdal says.

When Thermo Fisher acquired Dionex and its Chromeleon chromatography software a few years back, the two former competitors were free to exchange information freely on data standards and interfacing products through web services. “The great benefit of web services is there is no requirement to understand the underlying data structure,” says Thermo’s Chris Meek. “As long as we can talk to the web service that sits atop Chromeleon, we can access its data. That is our integration approach not only within our instrument/software portfolio, but with other vendors’ software as well.”

Cloud computing services make convergence easier too, because everything is under control of the service organization. Problems arise when third-party gatekeepers become involved at the insistence of the customer. “They create all kinds of security and administrative obstacles,” notes Wayne Verost. But within the cloud proper, through a tightly hosted service, changes are under the complete control of the vendor. “It’s the opposite of what you’d expect,” Verost adds.