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by Helen Gillespie

As a technology based in computers, laboratory information management systems (LIMS) are caught up in fast-paced changes. LIMS/Letter Editor Helen Gillespie describes the shifting tides that are keeping people responsible for managing a laboratory’s information output on their toes.

The past century, in particular the past two decades, has brought about an astounding change in the way business is conducted. From the Industrial Revolution in the beginning of the last century to the Technological Revolution that is now taking place, business operations have undergone profound change.

There have been large-scale external changes to society and industry that have in turn affected internal operations in the laboratory on a local level. Advances in other industries are adopted and integrated into the analytical chemistry arena. This convergence of technologies is an intimate dance that has changed the way companies do business as well as the way laboratories manage data.

The Laboratory Environment

The technological revolution now taking place is having a significant impact on the laboratory information management system (LIMS), since such systems are designed to manage the laboratory data. LIMS are information management systems that connect the analytical instruments in the lab to one or more workstations or personal computers. These instruments—such as chromatographs—are used to collect data. An instrument interface is used to forward the data from the chromatograph to the PC, where the data is organized into meaningful information. This information is further sorted and organized into various report formats based upon the type of report required.

It is odd to realize that fewer than seven years ago these systems were simple character-based solutions with green screens. The introduction of Windows-based systems, combined with the demands for very specific format and reporting requirements, have driven the development of LIMS that incorporate the latest technologies—and product delivery concepts driven by those technologies—in innovative ways. One of those concepts is applications on tap.

Applications on Tap

“Apps on tap” comprise an exciting area that is just emerging. Software solutions can be accessed over the Internet rather than the old way of buying a package off the shelf and installing it on the hard drive or server. Application service providers, or ASPs, are organizations that offer software solutions remotely over the Internet to companies that pay service and transaction fees to access the solution.

The earliest manifestation of apps on tap came about with e-mail and Internet access, such as AOL’s initial offering. Now, AOL bundles Internet access, e-mail, shopping, chat rooms, and more into a robust product that’s both easy to use and buy. A monthly fee is paid, a user name is issued, and the solution is installed and the user online in minutes.

There are a slew of dot. coms emerging with just about every conceivable take on this concept. For instance, there are organizations that offer supply chain management programs remotely for company purchasers and vendors to enable transactions between buyers and sellers.

SAP, the enterprise resource planning system provider, is now offering a hosted option for their system solutions. Existing customers are buying additional licenses and moving to the hosted environment. The enterprise resource planning solutions SAP offers, however, are only available from certified host partners. They handle all the computers and provide low-level system expertise and upgrades if needed, plus services such as capacity planning.

A new spin on the ASP is the vertical service provider that hosts another organization’s applications. Companies such as Portera Systems fall into this category. Portera distributes Oracle’s financial, human resources, and purchasing applications online.

There is even a start-up called AppCity that bills itself as an application portal and offers information-based applications for business users and consumers. The site launched with 50 applications in four categories: business, information, lifestyle, and shopping. These applications, however, are more like spreadsheets that let users view or chart information than full-blown Windows applications.

On the LIMS front, this concept was recently addressed by LabVantage Solutions with the introduction of their @LIMS product. @LIMS is a web-based solution that eliminates the need for the user to purchase many of the LIMS components with a thin client, 4MB footprint that operates from a T1 line at LabVantage’s offices. Similar in concept to an Internet service provider (ISP), solution, time, and capabilities—including data storage, support, maintenance, upgrades, and training—are purchased on a monthly basis. It is designed for small labs of five to 10 people.

This is a concept along the lines of Oracle Corporation’s premature attempt in the early 1990s to sell a network computer similar to the dumb terminals of the early 1980s. This network computer would dial into a central server that hosted all the applications which could then be accessed for a monthly fee. A pay-as-you-go, drop-it-on-your-credit-card concept similar to the business model used by AOL and other Internet service providers, it was a great idea, but before its time. When Oracle originally proposed that concept in the early 1990s, the Internet’s physical infrastructure was not as robust as it is now and the security features not as sophisticated. The market may be ready now. However, one of the problems then, and which still exists, is that the browser interface is not very powerful. It’s not yet possible to have all the functionality of a desktop application with just a Web browser and Java. So, the ability to use Windows-like features—such as dragging and dropping an item within a window—appears to be key to full-scale market acceptance of ASP solutions.

The Virtual Desktop

Storage solutions may continue to improve at the desktop level. Certainly there will be vendors who will capitalize on this need by offering ever more robust solutions. There will also be organizations, applications, and requirements that dictate a desktop solution.

Future storage solutions may migrate in greater numbers to the server, however. This certainly seems likely as business processes will no doubt continue to migrate toward a Web-centric approach, with data, information, and applications stored somewhere other than on the physical desktop. Wireless functionality will help in this arena. For instance, Analytical Automation Specialists offers a Field Data Entry Terminal that allows remote access to the LIMS via a PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory card International Association) modem. This small Windows palmtop provides a global positioning satellite (GPS) system for georeferencing and is particularly appropriate for environmental and petrochemical applications. Samples can be logged in from the field and cross-referenced based on absolute latitude and longitude at ±10 feet [3 m].

If a laptop or palmtop can access or deliver information from any place where satellite transmissions are possible, then it makes more sense to host data and applications on a server than it does to keep it on an inaccessible desktop. This is a productivity issue. Does this indicate that the virtual desktop is the next revolution that will take place in the office? If office applications migrate to the server, where LIMS information is usually kept, then it makes sense to integrate the two ever more tightly.

Will we finally realize the paperless office? Indeed, the paperless office is getting closer. The FDA’s 21 CFR Part 11 rule for electronic records and signatures has defined the standard that eliminates the need for a paper trail when there is an electronic one. But the concept of the paperless office relies upon a robust computer system.

One more point to consider: More and more businesses consider corporate knowledge more important than the product they sell. It’s what you know that counts. Thus what differentiates an organization from its competitors may be what it has learned about producing the product as much as the actual product itself. Knowledge management is thus being touted as the next arena for competitive differentiation.

Knowledge management is defined as the processes that are applied to the acquisition, storage, and dissemination of an organization’s knowledge assets. It is not an IS (information systems) activity, but falls within the IT (information technology) infrastructure, hence an organization’s information management solutions —such as the LIMS—are fundamental components of the knowledge management strategy. Simply put, knowledge management represents the processes required to bring the right information to the right people at the right time. It is anticipated that knowledge management requirements will be one of the driving forces behind the next-generation LIMS.

The Next-Generation LIMS and the Virtual Lab

There are so many different potential realities, so many converging technologies and capabilities that can have a dramatic impact on the next-generation LIMS. E-commerce. Internet marketplaces. Apps on tap. Web browser access. Bandwidth control. Storage technology. Faster, better, cheaper chips. Knowledge management.

The above activity seems comparable to timelines of the earth’s history where mankind occupies just the last few seconds in the total life of the planet. Just a blip. LIMS are still in an adolescent phase, so the turn of the century has little meaning as a milestone. The first 20 years of the automated lab are past. The next 20 years should prove very interesting indeed, now that telecommunications plays such a significant role in data management. We’ll be doing things in the lab in 2020 that are not even imaginable today. And bragging about how tough we had it in the old days!

There’s an interesting comparison to be made between the 40-year stretch that began in the 1880s and the current one that began in the 1980s. During the first 40-year span, industrialized society moved from gas lamps to electric ones, from horse and buggy to automobile, from clipper ships to airplanes. What amazing changes these must have been! Those changes appear so simple compared to the complexity of the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Of course, it was not easy to create an infrastructure for a regional, let alone national, electrical system. Nor was it easy to define and enforce traffic laws that brought some sanity to driving on the roads. But, today, we’re faced with legacy infrastructures that must be managed so that new systems and capabilities can be overlaid over existing, often obsolete, systems without impacting business negatively.

Where we have been depends so much on where we are going. The seeds have been sown and some are beginning to sprout. Web-based LIMS are now common. Electronic lab notebooks have become ubiquitous in the lab. LabVantage Solutions has already introduced the first LIMS packaged as an app on tap. NuGenesis Technologies, on the other hand, is attempting to create a new market arena for their Scientific Data Management System product, which allows users to archive and unify scientific information generated in the laboratory to a common database. From this central repository, information can be viewed, mapped, mined, analyzed, organized, shared, and reused. This solution is quite obviously the marriage of laboratory information requirements with enterprise-management information requirements. Solutions such as this, which leverage the best of a range of technologies, are what drive the convergence of those technologies. Is this the next-generation LIMS? It has many of the components of a knowledge management system. Will the virtual lab ever exist? You can probably count on it. What will it look like? No doubt both familiar and strange.

It is important to remember that LIMS are being squeezed between competing applications. Will they soon be swallowed by instrument-centric solutions or enterprise-centric ones? These scenarios are both highly likely and somewhat improbable, and whether or not either occurs depends on the upcoming unpredictable twists of technology that will drive the market down a given path.

One thing is for sure: the ability to capture, process, and disseminate information electronically has changed the way the lab will operate forever. //

Copyright 2000, ASTM

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Helen Gillespie is the editor/ publisher of the LIMS/Letter and Webmaster for the LIMSource.com. Prior to taking on the role of industry writer, she worked in marketing communications for high technology companies. Her articles have appeared in Today's Chemist, Pharmaceutical Technology, Environmental Lab, American Laboratory, and International Laboratory.

This article is excerpted and adapted from Helen Gillespie’s keynote presentation given at the International LIMS 2000 Conference and Exhibition, Atlantic City, N.J., May 16, 2000.