|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 laboratorys 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 instrumentssuch as chromatographsare 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 technologiesand
product delivery concepts driven by those technologiesin 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 AOLs initial offering. Now, AOL
bundles Internet access, e-mail, shopping, chat rooms, and more
into a robust product thats 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 organizations applications. Companies such as Portera
Systems fall into this category. Portera distributes Oracles
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 LabVantages offices.
Similar in concept to an Internet service provider (ISP), solution,
time, and capabilitiesincluding data storage, support, maintenance,
upgrades, and trainingare 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 Corporations 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 Internets 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. Its 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 featuressuch as dragging and
dropping an item within a windowappears 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 FDAs 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
One more point to consider: More and more businesses consider
corporate knowledge more important than the product they sell.
Its 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 organizations
knowledge assets. It is not an IS (information systems) activity,
but falls within the IT (information technology) infrastructure,
hence an organizations information management solutions such
as the LIMSare 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 earths
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. Well 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!
Theres 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
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, were faced with legacy infrastructures
that must be managed so that new systems and capabilities can
be overlaid over existing, often obsolete, systems without impacting
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
Copyright 2000, ASTM
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