Building on the right foundation – understanding the technology that your LIMS is built-on
Feb 04

Building on the right foundation – understanding the technology that your LIMS is built-on

Welcome to the final part in our ‘Choosing a LIMS’ series. It’s important before you start building anything that you have a solid foundation. When it comes to Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) that foundation is the technology or platform on which the software sits. This will impact what you can do, the software’s performance, how you access and use it, how it integrates with other systems and its potential longevity. And you’ll need to know whether the LIMS fits in with your lab or Biobank’s IT strategy and infrastructure.

The technology backbone of your laboratory information management system (LIMS)

Firstly, you need to know the underlying database that supports your LIMS. This can help you understand the scalability of the system. For example, are you looking at a system that sits on Access or MySQL? Or software that sits on SQL Server or Oracle? These offer you very different options in terms of user and data volumes, and performance. SQL Server and Oracle are generally viewed as enterprise-level platforms.

Next you should look at which platform versions the LIMS suppliers support. If the LIMS does not currently support the latest version, and it’s been around for a couple of years, then it’s important you know the reasons why. Likewise, how far back does it go in terms of supported versions? For example, you may not be in a position to upgrade to new software straightway, so you need to know the LIMS is supported on the last couple of versions.

Is the LIMS really web-based?

This can be trickier to work out than it would seem. Most web-based or cloud based systems require zero-footprint on the client – i.e. you don’t need to install anything to make the software work. There are some initial questions you can ask that will help you get to the bottom of this:

  • What browsers, and versions, does the LIMS run in?
  • Is the LIMS cloud based? Can you host the cloud based LIMS on your servers or is it only available externally?
  • Is the LIMS HTML5 compliant?
  • Do you need install any add-ons, plug-ins or software to make the system work?
  • Where do you install the software – i.e. is there a web server somewhere?
  • Is the LIMS entirely web-based or are some features only available via local programs?

And remember browser-based LIMS are not necessarily hosted systems. This is a different question that we’ll tackle separately.

Having a truly web-based system makes it easier for you to deploy and roll-out the LIMS. Especially if you have users in several locations.

This LIMS has a multi-tiered architecture …

That sounds lovely but what on earth does it mean? The reason for the tiers is to help with system scalability, performance and good architecture design. A LIMS can consist of 3 tiers:

  • Presentation-tier – how the system is presented to the user (client). This is the browser, for example, Internet Explorer or Chrome.
  • Applicationtier – these serve the application data to the client. This could be a web server that serves web pages to the browser using Internet Information Services (IIS) or Java EE server.
  • Datatier – this is the database that supports the system, such as SQL or Oracle Server.

Multi-tiered systems sometimes use the application layer to carry out processing which takes some of the load off the database. However, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper to work out what that means for individual Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS). And to find out what architecture and tiers they have and what each one does.

It’s not just about how easy it is to configure the LIMS but where that configuration’s held

There are different ways in which you can configure Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) and, therefore, they will manage those configuration changes differently. This includes:

  • saving configuration changes in separate files outside the system
  • having a list of predefined ‘custom’ fields, such as ‘usertext3, that you can add to screens
  • saving screens as a ‘copy’ that you then add your changes to
  • adding new fields to an ‘additional’ table that links to the LIMS’s core table, for example, you add your fields to a table called ‘TISSUESAMPLE_ADDITIONAL’ that links via a view to the ‘TISSUESAMPLE’ table
  • an entities system that stores configuration in the data-tier and dynamically draws forms based on what you’ve set up

Some of these configuration options can be quite restrictive. For example, if you’re creating a report that shows you ‘UserText3’ as an option, it can be time-consuming to work out exactly which field this relates to. Plus, what if you run out of ‘usertext’ fields?

If you know how a LIMS manages configuration, you’ll be able to assess what exactly you can change and whether the system will be able to manage your needs.

How do I stop unauthorised people accessing the LIMS?

We’ve touched on security briefly in our earlier blog Protecting what’s important – choosing a LIMS that protects your sensitive information. However, when it comes to protecting access to your Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) there are several ways in which your LIMS may manage this based on the technology it supports, for example:

  1. Authentication – This verifies that a user is who they claim to be and can be controlled using internal user accounts managed directly within your LIMS, integration with an existing user management system such as Active Directory or LDAP, single sign-on (SSO) via an external enterprise identity service or multi-factor authentication (MFA)
  2. Authorisation – This verifies what a user can or cannot access and is often role based.
  3. Encryption – Encryption encodes the data, so only users who have the key to decrypt it can view the data. It gives you an extra layer of protection – from both unauthorised internal and external viewing. Types of encryption include end-to-end encryption, encryption in transit and encryption at rest. Some LIMS provide data encryption at field- or database-level. If you’re storing personal identifiable information (PII) that should only be accessed by authorised users, then you need encryption. Again, it’s worth noting how the LIMS manages encryption and whether you can encrypt any new fields that you add.

You will need to choose the method(s) that best suit your internal protocols and IT policies, as well as how users are going to access the application. Some LIMS may provide one or more of these security options and levels. When choosing a LIMS you should try and select one that gives you multiple layers of protection.

Finally, what about reports and analysis?

Most Laboratory Information Management Systems sitting on SQL Server or Oracle can link to some form of reporting tool, for example, Crystal Reports or Microsoft Reporting Services. But you will have to pay separately for licences to view and design reports using these tools. This can turn out to be quite a hefty extra cost.

LIMS that have integrated dashboards and reporting tools can save you purchasing extra licences. However, if they are using proprietary tools, be aware that you may have to learn some weird and wonderful code to create your reports.

LIMS with integrated, ‘point-and-click’ reporting and dashboard tools give you the most benefits and they will also automatically pick up any security filters or permissions you’ve applied across the system. Plus, with integrated reporting tools, your data will remain in your LIMS rather you having to export and store it in a separate data store or warehouse.

But if you did want to export your LIMS data to an external database or warehouse then you need to understand the integration methods and technology used by the LIMS. For example, does the LIMS use Web Services? Does it have an API, and if so, is it self-explanatory or do you have to read a hefty manual? And is it RESTful or SOAP?

A final thought about LIMS technology

When choosing a LIMS understanding the technology that supports the LIMS is critical. You need to know whether it will fit into your infrastructure and IT strategy. But you also need to understand how scalable, flexible, secure and efficient it is – and what it’s future looks like. Really delving into ‘how’ the LIMS manages configuration or security can give you a glimpse ‘under the hood’ of the software. All of which can give you clues into how robust the software is and an understanding of its underlying design. Plus, when considering cloud based LIMS identify whether you can host the system.

To read more go to ‘Things to consider when choosing a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)‘.

Catch up with the rest of the series so far

About The Author

Sharon Williams has over 20 years’ experience of helping businesses successfully implement Sample Management Software and CRM systems. Appreciating that the software will deliver significant business change and improvements, Sharon guides businesses to help optimise these benefits. This includes advice on how to obtain user buy-in, evaluating and redefining existing business processes and how to gain a better understanding of their data to provide invaluable insight and inform business decisions.