The advantages of cloud computing have been widely discussed. Is there any evidence that using this technology in the routine of a laboratory actually improves things? And what are the differences when applied to a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)?

If you are also uncertain about this, read on to learn more.

When using a cloud-based LIMS system, how does it function?

Simply put, cloud systems, also known as cloud computing, allow users to access and store data remotely via the internet. Rather than having everything “stuck” to a machine in your lab, it is all stored in a remote compute server from which the programme is launched.

The term “cloud computing” can refer to a number of different things, including: software as a service (SaaS) where the entire ecosystem of software application, operating system, and server are managed by a service provider; platform as a service (PaaS) where the user manages the software application but the rest of the platform, the operating system and server, are provided by the service provider; and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) where the user manages the software application and the operating system, leaving the hardware infrastructure to be managed by the service provider.

The most common type of cloud-based LIMS system in laboratories is a private SaaS cloud. Being private rather than a shared environment every client system has its own independent server/software stack. This can help to protect sensitive client data, enables each client to update their software at a time that suits them, and allows LIMS configuration to suit a particular client’s needs independent from other users. Due to the virtual nature of this service, there is no need for users to ever visit the data centre in person.

Using a LIMS in the cloud has many advantages

Though more and more people are adopting cloud computing, many remain wary of doing so out of concern that their data will be less secure in the cloud. Though all cloud systems have tightly controlled access, moving sensitive corporate data outside the company firewall remains a hurdle to many senior IT managers, who must ensure data is always available, yet secure. 

Despite this perceived shortcoming, investing in a cloud-based LIMS has many perks.

Budget cuts

Using a cloud-based LIMS system can help save money, which is a major perk. But they don’t suit everyone. If all users of the LIMS system use the same software and configuration, and can tolerate updates to that software by the service provider at fixed maintenance times, then a single SaaS cloud can be used for all users. Each would have their own login and be isolated from all other users. Many vendors allow multiple users to use the same hardware and software, dividing the costs between them, reducing the price for all users.

However, if you need to manage when your software is updated, and you need to configure the LIMS to your personal needs, then you will usually need your own private SaaS cloud. This increases cost as you will be duplicating the entire hardware/software stack. (See limitations of cloud LIMS below).

Cloud customers can usually spread the costs out, paying a monthly fee to cover software licenses, system maintenance and support.

The convenience of data access

In the world of Big Data, it’s much less of a hassle to get your hands on precise information quickly. Cloud storage places information on a remote server that can be accessed by anyone with the correct credentials.

Anywhere you have access to the internet, you’ll have access to crucial information for your laboratory. This data is accessible from anywhere, including your couch, a foreign airport, or a coffee shop.

Strengthened safety measures

As we’ve already mentioned, there is a widespread myth that cloud servers are insecure and easy to hack. However modern firewalls, encryption methodology, and multi-factor user authentication techniques, ensure cloud solutions can meet the security standards demanded by big businesses.

As an added bonus, data is not stored locally on your computer, which is a security plus. That is to say, even if the computer in your laboratory fails, the data would still be safely stored in the cloud and easily accessible from any other device.

Computer servers offered by cloud providers like AWS and Azure are extremely reliable. So, you can rest easy, knowing that there is almost no chance of server downtime.

Need for little to no upkeep

You won’t need to worry about things like server room security, software updates, downtime, etc., because there won’t be any servers in your lab. Just continue to make your monthly usage payments and you’re all set.

A quicker rollout

The benefits of a cloud-based LIMS outweigh the time and effort required to set up and maintain local servers and client software. Getting things done is a breeze. On top of that, the service provider handles all necessary security updates, ensuring that your system is always up to date and functioning correctly.

Storage and Recovery Plans in Case of Emergency

An effective backup plan is essential for any research facility. Most cloud-based LIMS solutions incorporate backup and recovery mechanisms, ensuring data is never lost.

Win for small labs

Using a cloud-based LIMS makes it much easier for even the smallest laboratories to meet the standards set by regulatory agencies like FDA and standards-setting organisations like ISO. No need for the small lab to fork over money that it may not have.

The Limitations of Cloud LIMS

It would be unfair to write an article of the advantages of cloud LIMS without mentioning some of the key limitations.

Going to a Cloud LIMS solution is not necessarily cheaper or better for several reasons. You may not want your LIMS software to be updated at the same time as everybody else, as you will likely want to ensure the functionality, calculations and workflow are checked before you go live with the update. This is mandatory in certified tightly controlled laboratories but is also recommended good practice. Private clouds essentially add cost, duplicating hardware and software as well as increasing IT costs to maintain them.

Network connectivity is another critical consideration before making your choice. LIMS applications create and store huge amounts of data that is ultimately stored in a large database. While network bandwidth within any data centre will be fast, links across the cloud can slow performance dramatically. Streaming data from remote instruments from your laboratory to the cloud can also be problematic depending on network bandwidth and reliability. And don’t forget that many cloud solutions (AWS/Azure) often have metered networks (network capacity often being the most critical resource in a data centre) that charge by the byte, again adding to costs.

The costs of going to the cloud may also mushroom. Private SaaS clouds, regular database backups, monitoring and recovery systems, help desk support, scheduling software updates, updating LIMS configurations to meet changing needs. These can all add to costs for your provider, and therefore you, that it be may possible to avoid if the LIMS were physically within your local infrastructure.

Ultimately these problems are solvable, but they often add another layer of cost and management time that you would not naturally expect.

Is it a good idea to use a cloud-based LIMS in the lab?

The features of your lab will play a significant role in deciding how to respond to this question. It may be more cost-effective to stick with the current solution if you have an in-house IT team that can handle system updates, data security, and the development of enhanced and new process flows, including reports. Current trends are for cloud-based solutions, but many organizations maintain their own cloud-based data centres specifically to overcome some of the limitations mentioned above. The devil is always in the detail. Autoscribe Informatics collaborates with businesses all over the world to boost productivity. Matrix Gemini LIMS is leading the way in laboratory consolidation, data integrity, and productivity. The adoption of a LIMS can have many positive effects on a company, including the elimination of transcription errors, the acceleration of turnaround times, and the effective use of available resources.