Clouds in the lab

Like much in healthcare IT, the development of Laboratory Information Management Systems (LIMS) has been an uneven mix of technology-push and user-pull, coupled with regulatory efforts at streamlining the two. Today, the new vista of cloud computing is rapidly opening up new LIMS opportunities, especially for smaller labs.

The demand for LIMS began in the late 1970s after the proliferation of electronic lab equipment and an explosion in data. The then-emerging technology of ‘minicomputers’ offered LIMS the first realistic alternative to expensive/inaccessible mainframes. Minicomputers, however, were only a brief interlude in computing technology, before the advent of personal computers. Most minicomputer vendors (e.g Data General, Wang, Norsk Data etc.) have since disappeared. By the late 1980s, personal computers enabled LIMS users to leverage relational databases. The arrival of client/server architecture and the Internet in the 1990s expanded the reach of LIMS outside laboratories, providing novelties such as 24×7 analysis from offshore locations. The past decade has expanded the footprint of LIMS further via Wi-Fi, mobile access and standards like XML.

However, much of this has been a mixed blessing. As the LIMS community proliferated, so too did concerns about data security and systems complexity. Competition among LIMS vendors led to a blizzard of new features, ranging from those required to comply with regulations, to a swathe of pureplay ‘business’ applications such as inventory and personnel management, workflow sequencing etc. The result: an escalation in user expectations, and in entry-level costs.

In spite of the recent centralisation of healthcare, most labs are still relatively small. In the US, the largest 50 account for one-third of the industry’s total revenues of about 40 billion dollars; over 7,500 labs share the rest. With commercial LIMS systems beyond their budgets, several labs have sought to develop their own, but almost always ended up with huge cost-overruns, and performance problems. One reason lies in the very essence of information technology, namely the steady fall in unit costs of processing power, with savings harnessed by commercial vendors to bundle additional features. The second reason: any mission-critical IT system needs to handle peak load requirements, often several multiples of the median; healthcare is no exception.
Cloud computing technology may answer both the above challenges, and LIMS seems an especially promising area. At its most basic, cloud computing is akin to an electricity grid, pooling computing horsepower across locations to enable scale-up on demand; the parallel is particularly close in terms of load balancing – the ability to adjust database, server and networking capacity to fluctuating demand.
In May 2010, a headline feature by the American Chemical Society titled ‘LIMS in the Cloud’ emphasised how cloud computing was opening up LIMS to small labs, which had ‘not been particularly well served’ by vendors. Indeed, cloud-based LIMS pioneers such as LabLynx have acquired over 1,000 customers in less than two years of launch. The recent entry of IT giants such as Microsoft, Oracle and Google into cloud computing promises to galvanise the industry further, with LIMS applications likely to remain at the forefront.