The spotlight shone on small laboratories at Pittcon, the huge annual analytical science meeting and exposition, earlier this year when Thermo Fisher Scientific debuted Internet-enabled laboratory information management system (LIMS) software designed to be affordable to smaller labs in industry, academia, and government.
Thermo Fisher's LIMS-on-Demand provides access to lab management software from remote servers, allowing laboratories to forgo housing those servers and associated computers on-site. This method of supplying software, known as software as a service (SAAS), has been used in other sectors, most notably sales force automation, for some time now.
What the average Pittcon attendee may not have known is that Thermo tried launching a similar product several years ago, without success. Researchers, it seemed, weren't as ready as salespeople were to let their data reside outside their own walls. Now, Thermo and some of its competitors are betting that managers of small labs have come around to the idea of ceding some control in exchange for access to LIMS tools that previously only bigger labs could afford.
In recent years, SAAS marketers have delivered their goods via cloud computing, a fast-growing information technology (IT) technique in which third-party data storage providers offer computing power as an outsourced service (C&EN, May 25, 2009, page 10). The cloud-based SAAS model, according to Thermo, allows research organizations to pay for software with subscriptions rather than full licenses, while reducing the maintenance cost associated with in-house equipment. Thermo will host LIMS-on-Demand via a third-party server called OpSource.
It is not unusual in the world of commercial software development for the small user to be served last. Initial product development generally focuses on large, corporate customers. This is certainly the case for LIMS. But it also often happens that users, including smaller ones, resist alternative technologies at first. This has also been the case with LIMS.
S. Doug Holbrook, Thermo's senior product manager for informatics, said the unsuccessful launch eight years ago was "a failure of trust at the time. Most people weren't even comfortable with online banking then." Today, though, researchers are more confident in their ability to maintain data security on the Internet, Holbrook says, and are beginning to consider cloud computing an option for research data storage.
Other major software suppliers are offering LIMS systems with Web-based components, but they are waiting to see whether users are interested in going so far as to drop in-house servers and rely on cloud computing. LabVantage Solutions, a Thermo competitor, also launched an unsuccessful venture in SAAS-based LIMS eight years ago. According to Terry Smallmon, director of life sciences at the company, skittishness about Internet security was compounded by technical issues. "Bandwidth was not what it is now, and there was difficulty with interfacing instruments, such as bar-code readers and printers," he recalls.
Currently, LabVantage is offering its LIMS software configured for applications such as quality control and biobanking, which makes it more affordable for small laboratories and also for large companies running many individual laboratories, says Robert Voelkner, manager of strategic accounts. Software is accessed via a Web browser, but the user maintains the server and databases.
Starlims, a large LIMS vendor that was purchased in March by Abbott Laboratories, has offered a Web-browsable version of its product for about four years. Like LabVantage, Starlims has developed software catering to specific types of laboratories, such as life-sciences and forensics labs. Simon Wood, director of marketing, says Starlims is also watching the market to determine whether to offer LIMS in a cloud-based model.
"The small-lab market has not been particularly well served by LIMS suppliers," Wood acknowledges. "The cloud is an opportunity, but it comes with caveats." Of most concern are security and the ability to adapt applications from a cloud server to a particular lab and its instrumentation.
LIMS software has evolved over the years to meet the needs of large research operations, notes Kim Shah, Thermo Fisher's director of marketing and business development. The initial systems were designed to accommodate large-volume data generation and sample tracking. They were upgraded to serve decentralized global organizations and were further developed to integrate data with other software, including business management systems.
"LIMS became more complicated and a bigger investment, leaving behind the smaller and medium-sized labs who can't afford it," he says. "We wanted to develop a different delivery and economic model—a new way to interact with the software."
One option was to reintroduce the SAAS model, which Shah figures has a greater chance of being adopted given its success in other industries and growing user confidence in cloud-supported on-demand services. The approach offers similar benefits to large users, Shah says, but he admits it's not for everyone. Users in regulated industries may not be ready to allow their servers and databases outside laboratory firewalls.
Shah says LIMS-on-Demand establishes three approaches to accessing the software: the standard full license, cloud-based SAAS delivery, and a hybrid model in which some users hook into software from an outside server while other programs are managed on laboratory computers.
Michael Elliott, president of IT consulting firm Atrium Research & Consulting, predicts that SAAS-based LIMS will get off to a slow start, noting that lab managers will weigh competitive concerns as heavily as they will regulatory requirements.
"Smaller academic and government laboratories that are less concerned about things like intellectual property may tend to go toward cloud-based LIMS in order to get applications at a lower price point," he says. "Will cloud computing impact the overall market? Yeah, but to a very small extent. Total activity on the cloud is currently at less than 5%."
That percentage could increase, Elliott adds, given how quickly other industries have moved into Internet-based alternatives to in-house computing. Economic pressures will also push people in the direction of SAAS to reduce IT maintenance costs. "But right now, we are into the hype cycle," Elliott says. With Thermo introducing LIMS-on-Demand, he says, discussion of the approach will increase, and other vendors may feel they need to introduce cloud-based LIMS in order to compete. "Whether customers will jump on it is another question," he notes.
The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a spinal cord injury research center that operates a laboratory at the University of Miami, is one of the first users of Thermo's LIMS-on-Demand. Vance Lemmon, a professor of neurological surgery at the university and head of the laboratory, says the lab, which has about 20 scientists, is converting its four-year-old Thermo Fisher Nautilus LIMS to the new SAAS version so it doesn't have to maintain the system's Oracle data servers at the university.
"The main problem is that the servers are in the university server farm," he explains. "We don't have physical access to them; we have to use university database managers. Since we are a small consumer as far they are concerned, we are way down the list." It has sometimes taken IT management weeks to respond to service requests. "It's a function of being in a university setting," Lemmon says.
The Miami Project's lab may be considered small, but it is one of the most active labs working in the area of spinal cord injury, Lemmon says, and LIMS software is essential to managing operations. "My lab does high-content screening of genes and compounds to explore ways of making nerves grow better," he says. "We are overwhelmed with data." The lab quickly outgrew traditional paper-based workflow management techniques. "Our work involves lots of people. Keeping track of what everybody did wasn't working. We had to find some kind of LIMS."
Although Thermo's Nautilus system allowed researchers to devote less time to record tracking, the server bottleneck was creating its own problems—for which Thermo suggested a solution. "We are a beta user of LIMS-on-Demand," Lemmon says. "I have beta-sited for Thermo for three of their divisions because of what we do here. I don't mean to brag, but we are kind of cutting edge." The lab was a first user of Thermo's high-tension analysis system and its Open Biosystems Short-Hairpin RNA Library.
One of the two servers supporting the Miami Project's LIMS, the one that managed the development of workflow procedures, has been removed, and the applications put on Thermo's third-party cloud. The second server, which manages project data, should be removed by June. Lemmon says the advantage of outsourcing data servers is already apparent. "We are no longer maintaining Oracle, and we don't have to post updates to Nautilus," he says. The lab's programmers no longer have to go through the university's server department to perform periodic software upgrades. New applications will now be accessed via the cloud as Thermo introduces them. "For a little lab, that is a huge advantage," he says.
The subscription payment plan isn't saving much money compared with the software license approach, Lemmon says. "But our decision is not driven by cost savings. We wanted to get rid of the hassle." He says security and reliability are not major concerns. "I'm taking their word for it," he says. "They have a more robust server system than we do."
Although Thermo is the only large LIMS supplier currently selling cloud-based software, at least two smaller vendors have been at it for a while.
Sciformatix was founded in 2007 specifically to market SAAS-based LIMS to small laboratories. Chief Executive Officer Thomas Kent, a software engineer who had worked with life sciences companies including Abgenix, now part of Amgen, says one of the main advantages of SAAS LIMS to small users is the ability to access applications tailored to specific needs in their laboratories.
Sciformatix hosts its LIMS, called SciLIMS, on third-party servers. "We started down the path of developing our own data center but migrated to third-party hosting," Kent says. "It's more cost-effective for us and our customers. And with our hosting partner, customers can manage their resources more effectively than we can."
Another small firm, LabLynx, began selling Web-browsable LIMS more than a decade ago and has offered SAAS on the cloud for two years. According to LabLynx President John H. Jones, the firm hosts its LIMS users on servers it owns at two data centers.
Jones says the main advantage of the cloud is the ability to scale up applications. LabLynx previously sold LIMS based on an application server platform, a means of acquiring software functions over the Internet but with each user housing its own server.
"There were no economies of scale," he says. "One server equaled one customer." With computers configured for cloud storage, one server can be put to work for multiple customers without researchers having to sacrifice functionality.
The seed lab at the Georgia Department of Agriculture, in Tifton, a LabLynx user, recently converted its LIMS to the cloud-based system. "Originally, the data were stored on our servers, but we had problems with IT department scheduling and access to the server," says Mark McMillan, manager of the lab, which measures germination and seed purity characteristics. He contacted Jones at LabLynx directly. "I said, 'John, we have to do something,' " McMillan recalls. "He said, 'Put it over here.' "
Since converting to an SAAS system, the LIMS is operating much more efficiently, McMillan says. "Right now we have very little down time," he says. "We have one-tenth of a percent of the time we had with the original system."
The adjacent chemistry lab may also convert to the cloud, according to Mike Farrow, assistant director of the chemical laboratory division of the agriculture department. Currently, researchers there access information from a series of databases that are custom-designed for specific sampling and administrative functions.
Adopting the cloud, however, would initiate significant changes that need to be assessed. "We would have a relationship with a cloud provider—a new set of people to work with, and we would all have to have the same mission," Farrow says. "The only hang-up I'm aware of is ownership of data." If the provider is not a government agency, he says, the lab would have to investigate the liability of putting public information in their computer infrastructure.
Lamar Pearce, chief information officer for the agriculture department, says IT management is watching McMillan's seed lab to evaluate the benefits of the cloud. "We have Mark out in the cloud," he says. "We'll get a baseline pulse and look at Mike's lab and see where we want to go." He notes that decision-making is done at the labs themselves and that budgetary concerns are paramount. But he adds that next year's opening of a 55,000-sq-ft lab in Tifton, which will consolidate labs in Tifton and Atlanta, will provide an opportunity to implement a new LIMS.
The advance of cloud computing in the laboratory is also likely to impact electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs). Symyx, a leading supplier of notebooks, introduced a cloud-hosted version of its Discovery Gate ELN in September, according to John McCarthy, vice president for product management strategy.
As with LIMS, cloud-hosted ELNs eliminate the need for on-site databanks, servers, and software. Applications are accessed from a computer hosting service called Switch Communications. According to McCarthy, one of the biggest benefits to researchers, especially in pharmaceutical and biotech companies, is the facilitation of partnerships with contract research organizations (CROs) and others. "If a company wants to work with a CRO in China or India, it doesn't need to punch a hole in the firewall," he says. "Symyx will allow partners access for the duration of the project."
Symyx is initially targeting small companies for cloud-hosted ELNs, McCarthy says. "Our first customers are small biopharma and biotech companies that want to bring in the IT ability without the burden on infrastructure." He adds that Symyx is in discussions with major drug companies as well, noting that big pharma also can benefit from the system's collaborative features as well as the cost savings.
Software firms still on the fence regarding the cloud say they have their eye on user demand. "We are not offering SAAS at this point. We are going to see what the market does," says Voelkner at LabVantage. "I suspect Thermo will find out that SAAS is a small part of their business." He adds that the technical aspects of adapting LIMS software to cloud computing pose little challenge.
In fact, Voelkner says LabVantage's software, which is licensed, can be configured on a cloud by a user that arranges for its own cloud server. Systems development consultant LookLeft Group has done just that for the Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute and the Multiple Myeloma Research Consortium. Brian J. Chadwick, general manager of LookLeft, says his firm has established a cloud-based biobanking LIMS for both institutions—each has about 15 partner facilities—using LabVantage's Sapphire LIMS software. The company contracts with two server facilities, in Philadelphia and White Plains, N.Y., to provide cloud services to Addario and the multiple myeloma consortium.
Chadwick says LookLeft is able to supply a comprehensive LIMS from a major software vendor in such a way that users can access, and pay for, only the applications they need. He says large research organizations are coming around to the concept. "Users have gotten over the concern about security. They don't need to keep everything behind the firewall," he says, noting the redundant back-up capacity that is a standard in cloud-computing server configurations.
Regulators are also becoming more accustomed to online record-keeping and reporting, Chadwick says. Electronic data capture is now a common mechanism for filing reports to the Food & Drug Administration. "And the cool thing about the cloud model is that all the regulatory compliance requirements can be handled centrally," he says. "And if there are updates to the software needed, that is all done in one place."
Industry watchers agree that cloud computing is beginning to make inroads in the laboratory at a time when most research organizations—and particularly those in the pharmaceutical industry—are attempting to deal with a significantly increased data management burden. Elliott of Atrium Research adds that the recession has prompted most labs to look for IT cost reductions and develop data management regimes that tight budgets can support. Decisions about whether to outsource LIMS and other lab software to cloud-service providers will be guided by a mix of security, regulatory, and procedural concerns that are unique to every lab.
And don't downplay research culture as a limiting factor to any kind of change in IT or lab procedure. "The most frustrating thing, not surprisingly, is just getting user compliance, especially in the academic world," says Lemmon of the Miami Project. "It's hard to get people to buy into things. They think of themselves as independent scientists, and they want immediate results for themselves. They don't see immediate benefit from a group effort."