Have you noticed how many Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) and Biobank Information Management Systems (BIMS) are migrating to the cloud? Are cloud-based LIMS or BIMS just a fad or are there some advantages and tangible benefits to it? Cloud-based LIMS and BIMS usually offer Software as a Service (SaaS). This means that you a soon as you sign up, you have a URL to access your software of choice. You don’t install anything on your servers or machines. Instead, the software, and your data, is held and managed on externally hosted and managed systems.
Whether you’re wondering about your current system’s ongoing suitability or are already in the market for a new one you should be aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of offloading your data into the cloud.
Many modern systems run completely within web browsers This, in general, is a very good thing – simplifying or removing the need to install complex software on local computers before you can access your data. But, and it is a big “but”, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to make the leap and put all your data on the internet in a cloud-based LIMS or BIMS. So why would you want to?
What are some of the advantages of cloud-based LIMS or BIMS?
1. Reduced infrastructure requirements
Firstly – costs. Network IT overhead costs can be huge. Maintaining the hardware, network infrastructure and technical skills to manage, monitor and develop the hardware and software can be a big drain. A cloud-based LIMS or BIMS eliminates this.
It also allows you to start very small and low-cost and to grow as your team and needs grow. Let some huge specialist organisation deal with the server hardware, operating systems upgrades, security headaches, failover systems, etc. You just use it as a service.
All you need is a browser, an Internet connection and some local security software.
2. Access from anywhere
Nowadays not everybody has a single place of work or even a desk. Whether you’re moving between labs, hot-desking or working from a home/business hub, you don’t want to lose access to your precious data. And you don’t want to have to install a massive software application before you can even log on or be dictated to in terms of the device you use.
One of the major advantages with cloud-based LIMS or BIMS is that as long as you have an internet connection you can login from anywhere in the world.
3. Always use the latest version
If your LIMS or BIMS provider is maintaining a hosted solution (most now use the term “cloud-based solution”) they have a definite incentive to have all their customers using the latest version. It makes it easier for them to support and the customers get bang up-to-date software. Win-win!
4. Simple licensing
Signing up to a cloud-based LIMS or BIMS is usually a simple process and you can be up and running within a day with a relatively low initial outlay. Usually you pay a monthly licence fee based on a number of users and, perhaps, the level of functionality required. If your team expands such as when you take on a big contract or new responsibilities within your organisation, it’s a simple matter of increasing the number of users to the next charging tier and paying a higher monthly fee. Conversely, if your needs reduce then you can lower your monthly fees. Perfect for seasonal work and it reduces your long-term financial commitments.
5. Offload the security headache
You’re scientists. Researchers. You’re very unlikely to be experts at database design and security. Plus, even if this does “light your fire” you won’t have time to indulge that interest. You need to be able to concentrate on your job. You either need to pay your institute’s IT experts to maintain a system for you or let a cloud-based LIMS or BIMS solution provider do it all for you for a simple monthly fee.
Sounds good so far, so what’s the downside?
After all that you might be wondering why there are any local LIMS/BIMS at all! Well, it’s not all sweetness and light. There are some significant disadvantages as well. Let’s have a look at some.
1. Loss of direct control of your data
For an institute using a LIMS or BIMS its data is the soul of its business. Much of it will be sensitive and proprietary. If you’re going to shove all of that data into a database somewhere in “the cloud” then you need confidence that it will be secure and only you have access to it and the associated Intellectual Property (IP). You are also trusting the solution provider to exercise appropriate security measures to ensure that it’s hack-proof. Such consolidated centres of medical research data are very attractive targets for hackers. There’s a lot of trust involved.
If you’re considering cloud-based LIMS or BIMS then delve deep into where your data is held, what security is in place, who can access it and how can you export it.
2. “One of the Crowd”
Inherent in the decision to “join the crowd” using a hosted LIMS or BIMS system is the choice to go with the standard functionality available. You’re using the same software as dozens or hundreds of other companies. You restrict your ability to be individual and dynamic. There are also typically reduced customisation capabilities. It’s “one size fits all”.
Some cloud-LIMS and BIMS systems may offer configuration tools but these may be limited in relation to a locally hosted system.
3. Rigid data structures
You’re sharing a common system with many other institutes and that limits your flexibility in terms of how your data is structured. If you have specialist requirements such as needing to store genomics data, then you need to be certain that your chosen system is structured correctly. It’s a rare system that can mix the benefits of a cloud-based platform while still giving you the flexibility to optimise your data.
4. More complex integration
Often, you’ll need to exchange data with other systems. For a LIMS or BIMS this can be a hospital management system, a diary scheduler, email system, or reporting/analysis toolkit. In fact, it could be all of them! When you take one system and move it into the cloud, your integration tools are drastically reduced. Your cloud system’s host probably provides a set of web services for data transfer and you’ll have to work with that. Local IT teams, on the other hand, have many more tools and ways of linking them together. If your other system can’t work with web services, then you’ve got a problem.
5. Lose your identifiable data
Finally, your hands may be tied by legislation. The legal compliance may dictate that no identifiable data can be stored in cloud systems e.g. NHS storing patient identifiable data (PID) outside of the N3 network. If this is the case for you then you’ll have to maintain an encrypted internal store of your PID alongside unique IDs from the anonymous data in your cloud system. Having to do this will cancel out many of the advantages of using the cloud-based LIMS or BIMS system in the first place.
A final thought about cloud-based LIMS and BIMS
As you can see, there are some strong arguments both for and against cloud-based LIMS and BIMS systems and, while they have some big advantages and benefits there are some major hurdles to consider as well. The largest one being data access and ownership.
In addition, some LIMS and BIMS providers also offer systems that you can deploy to your own cloud-based Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) environment. This means that you will have greater access to the underlying software and can take advantage of features that are usually only available to those with on premise deployments. Which may be something else for you to consider? And a topic to leave for another blog!
- Software as a Service (SaaS) explained – https://azure.microsoft.com/en-gb/overview/what-is-saas/
- Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) explained – https://azure.microsoft.com/en-gb/overview/what-is-iaas/