A Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) is software that allows the management of samples, test results and associated data to improve lab productivity. The software is applicable to many different kinds of industry, including medical and healthcare, nuclear and radiochemical, food and beverages and mining.

When it comes to LIMS, some regard ‘the Cloud’ as the next big development regarding this type of technology and a general movement towards the ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) model.

Storing data in the Cloud can also look attractive to some organisations due to perceptions of the approach being generally cheaper to implement and operate.

When it comes to customer IT strategy, however, it is often decided by a number of factors which include information security (the sensitivity of data and their approach to risk of data loss) and IT infrastructure (scalability of resources, bandwidth and reliability), as well as overall value (operational versus capital costs).

Since the SaaS model has no initial license and hardware costs attached, there is in theory no capital outlay and instead a monthly fee per user is paid which can live ‘comfortably’ within an operational budget. A further consideration is that there may be automatic system back-ups and updates; meaning that customer IT support is not required on-site. In the Cloud, data storage is completely scalable, so it can be increased to cope with less or more limitless quantities of data.

How does this all really stack up against the more traditional enterprise deployment of LIMS?

For the enterprise model, the LIMS software is installed on the customer’s own server, for a one-off perpetual license fee. Data is also held on the customer’s server(s); usually behind an organisation-wide firewall for maximum data security. IT support and upfront costs are therefore higher, but the security level is also much higher. Many organisations prefer an enterprise model because it keeps control of their data. This is especially true of LIMS that hold sensitive data such as in pharmaceutical and medical diagnostics where, compared to the hardware costs of on-site protected servers, the potential ‘cost’ of loss of Cloud-stored data, both direct and reputational costs, are enormous.

A second advantage of installing the LIMS on the customer site is that the bandwidth of the local network will be higher and therefore round-trip time for data to be requested and sent from the server will be much less. In practice, and on the basis of there being ‘like for like’ servers, the performance of a local server compared to one in the Cloud will be much better. How much depends on the types of data being requested and whether the resulting data relies on complex calculations using other data in the database.

The third advantage to installing a LIMS locally is simply one of reliability. Again, assuming like for like servers having them locally based, in your own network, means they don’t rely on an internet service provider (ISP) for connectivity removing a large reliability risk.

You could also argue that relying on an external organisation for system backups and maintenance may be extremely fool hardy, unless you regularly test that backup and recovery plan. That’s the same whether you do this is the Cloud or within the enterprise.

In practice no two laboratories work in the same way, even different sites in the same Company often have slightly different working practices. This means that the working flow, screens, tests and so forth must be configured slightly differently for every system and often for every site. This configuration cost must be taken into account whether the solution is a SaaS/Cloud model or an enterprise model. It is a one-off cost but will vary between LIMS solutions, depending on how easy the software is to configure, and may be a significant part of the costs of a LIMS project. A properly configured LIMS should be intuitive to use, easily adopted by new staff and be adaptable throughout the life of the LIMS to meet evolving needs.

It means that, when it comes to the total cost of ownership of an enterprise LIMS vs a Cloud-based system, it’s not always as straightforward as it first might seem. Extra factors – for example, the ‘cost’ of flexibility to create specific workflows for individual laboratories within an organisation – may also be difficult to calculate, yet these can be the difference between a lab which works efficiently and one which does not; even in the case of small labs. Whether your LIMS is physically in the enterprise or in the Cloud is ultimately a ‘red herring’. Much more important in whether the LIMS fits your needs both today and in the future. So, beware ‘snake oil’ salesmen who push “Cloud” LIMS as the answer. First ensure to ask the right questions to get a flexible LIMS that will suit the evolving needs of your organisation.

In practice the ‘where’ question is simple to solve as most LIMS vendors can provide an in-premise (enterprise) or off-premise (Cloud) solution. It’s just that some think it is the answer to all ills when, in reality, it is not.