Is the Cloud Right for Your Lab?

Choice of Solutions

Once you have decided that you’re ready to transition to a new ELN or LIMS you will need to decide whether to implement a

  1. Traditional solution
  2. A Cloud hosted solution
  3. A Cloud solution provided as a service (Software as a Service or SaaS)

Traditional ELN/LIMS vendors have historically controlled the market, however SaaS providers have made recent advances. As you consider a solution for your lab, you will need to assess the risk/benefits associated with each type of solution.

Progression to the Cloud

Cloud computing concepts are not as new as you would think. In fact, since the 1950s the computer revolution was driven by hugely expensive mainframes shared among “dumb” terminals. This configuration shares similarities with the Cloud only limited within a company. Introduction of affordable personal computing in the 80s and 90s revolutionized home computing but companies continued to keep big, expensive, server farms inside their corporate walls.

The advent of the Internet introduced the “Cloud” era.  Products like Salesforce and services like Amazon Web Services gave Cloud access to any size company providing scalable, secure and inexpensive remote computing.  This revolution is not (only) driven by the research of computing power but, rather, by the infinite possibilities of having a system that can be used anywhere and by anyone.

Some of the benefits derived from Cloud solutions:

  • Ability to access data remotely
  • Minimize Total Cost of Ownership – IT footprint (Hardware, Maintenance, Personnel)
  • Scalability – easily scale hardware to support user load.

Recognize the Total Cost of Ownership of a traditional solution

Actually, “out of the box” traditional solutions entail a big effort to install, setup, and configure.

These are complex systems that require dedicated Servers, Databases, File Shares and Integration with other systems.  Once those items have been accounted for there will still be a need to allocate a team to support the various systems and take care of all the periodic activities like monitoring and patch installations.

Even if your Company already has a strong IT footprint, ask yourself, “How efficient can our IT department be when supporting a tool that’s not developed by them? How many hours, days or months would they need to invest in keeping themselves up to date with the latest releases or investigating every issue that will arise? Is this necessary for our core business?”.

What about a traditional solution hosted in the Cloud?

A solution “hosted” in the Cloud means the hardware is procured/maintained in the Cloud but often the maintenance of the overall solution remains the responsibility of the lab or IT department. Many vendors charge for the environment (in addition to the license fee) and will take a hands-off approach to installation or configuration issues.  A final point to consider is the solution design. Traditional systems are not designed to deal with the challenges of a Cloud deployment – availability, latency, and security.

Why consider Software as a Service

  • The solution is offered for a single, transparent, annual license fee. As a customer, you don’t have hidden fees and costs.
  • The service will be continually enhanced and improved not only to add new features but also to improve the overall stability of the product; it is in the service providers best interest
    to have as few incidents as possible because they support the environments themselves.
  • ‘Future-proof’ your organization. In the event your selected ELN/LIMS vendor does not evolve to support your future requirements, it will be much easier to switch between SaaS vendors than a traditional solution
    where you have invested in not only the product but also the hardware and maintenance staff.

SaaS solutions are, by definition, accessible anywhere giving you flexibility and expanding your possibilities. For example:

  • You can easily share your data with your customers or your suppliers without the need of complicated network configurations.
  • Your employees can work on-the-go without the need of using a VPN or similar tools
  • A minimal footprint is required (often only a laptop or mobile device). This means you’ll not have to dedicate an IT resource to rollout the initial setup or to keep it up to date every time a minor change is pushed.

What are the risks associated with Software as a Service?

  1. The storage of your lab data in the Cloud
  2. Transmission of your data across the internet

Let’s consider each in turn:

Data storage in the cloud means that your company does not directly own and control the data storage medium.
To assess the risk, you should compare the security of data inside your organization to security features of a major Cloud infrastructure provider such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon.

In most cases, the security and resilience of the Cloud provider will be equal to or better, simply because the Cloud provider focuses on security and resilience as a primary business driver and your company probably focuses on science.

Another risk associated with Cloud storage is that your access to the data is through the SaaS vendor. The SaaS vendor owns the contract with the Cloud storage provider.  What would happen if the SaaS provider were to prevent access to your data? This risk although unlikely is of high impact and must be mitigated by regular archive of your data to a storage location inside your company.

The transmission of data across the internet opens the potential for your data to be exposed to competitors or others.  Again, this risk must be mitigated by the SaaS vendor through transmission encryption and regular security monitoring.

What to consider when selecting Software as a Service

If the benefits of a Cloud solution outweigh the risk for your organization, there are several differentiators which you will wish to consider when selecting a SaaS provider:

  • The Product: Your selected vendor must satisfy your requirements. Don’t settle!
  • The effort required to customize/implement the solution: Try to identify in advance the steps/effort involved in initial implementation.
  • Compliance concerns: Does the vendor supply a complete documentation package and how much effort is required by you?
  • Product releases: You should have the ability to schedule your advancement to the latest available software version. If compliance is required in your lab, scheduling is important to allow time to execute PQ (Performance Qualification) testing for new product releases.
  • Isolation of the General Infrastructure (Servers, Databases, etc): Isolation should extend to your production and test environments:
    • Avoid even the hint that data can be compromised.
    • You will have full control on the release schedule. This is useful if there are multiple environments: a validated and a controlled environment
    • System performance is affected only by the usage you generate.
    • Specific functionalities which differentiate your lab can be implemented.
  • Cloud storage provider: Insist on a certified Cloud infrastructure provider for both your live and back-up data.
  • Security monitoring: Verify that your environment will be constantly monitored against any threat.
  • Support: Determine or specify in a Service Level Agreement the response required to maintain the infrastructure running and avoid disruption in the service.
  • Instrument Interface: Instrument interface is more difficult for a Cloud solution. Be sure the vendor you select can interface efficiently with your instrumentation.

As noted above, there are many ELN/LIMS vendors which offer traditional application in a “hosted” Cloud. Be sure to get the full benefits of a Cloud solution by selecting a vendor with a product entirely designed and engineered to run in the Cloud and which is delivered as a Service – a service that is self-hosted & supported. Avoid the issues which arise from a system which hasn’t been designed specifically for the Cloud and rather is designed as an add-on.

Closing Remarks

It may take months or years to implement an ELN or LIMS and then years to really make it your own; these systems have a way of becoming entrenched in a laboratories way of life, and once implemented, very difficult to remove.

Traditional ELN/LIMS vendors are aware that Cloud services will soon replace traditional solutions and are scrambling to make the transition. If you select a traditional solution, will it soon be obsolete?

Only you can assess the risks and benefits as they relate to your organization. It is our opinion that SaaS as a technology has come of age. The risks can be mitigated and the benefits make SaaS worth investigation.



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