Cloud computing and data storage has been around for a surprising length of time now, yet on the Gartner Hype Scale we've only just really hit the plateau of productivity now where it, as a tool, is being used as effectively as it can be whilst still being early in its commercial mass applications. Whilst the world of pharmaceuticals and R&D is often on the cutting edge in its own right, it often lags just a little bit behind when it comes to adopting the latest and greatest IT solutions. This isn't a criticism, it makes perfect sense; there's no other industry with as much regulation and it's better to see how effectively the new solutions can be implemented in other industries before picking it up and adopting it internally. LIMS solutions have been moving more and more towards the cloud and further away from thick clients in recent years, with perhaps the exception of the super-massive pharmaceutical companies, but now that we're starting to see widespread implementation of cloud computing within pharma and R&D we can start to better assess the impact it's had on the industry.
The obvious plus side to utilising a LIMS system from the cloud is the much lower implementation costs; each piece of hardware which is being connected to the LIMS needs nothing more than a browser or login details, freeing up the hard space for essential local data storage or even to simply make them as efficient as possible. When it comes to storing data in the cloud this is again true; less data stored locally is cheaper, makes the hardware faster and reduces the cost of implementing new data storage solutions. Ease of use is the other major benefit, as most modern cloud based LIMS systems have been designed with the User Interface being front of mind, as well as adaptability to the different systems each lab will need. It's more often a bare bones approach, but the real benefit here is hidden; in reducing what you don't need processes can become increasingly streamlined. This is invaluable in an industry that's often-long term in its thinking as long administrative processes in the lab can accumulate over the life cycle of the lab.
The use of a third-party cloud LIMS can also add another layer of security as any cloud solutions provider will have a heavy focus on security that could far outstrip the cyber security measures in place within the lab due to a greater need for dedicated cyber security professionals. There is obviously a mitigating factor to this which'll be addressed in the next section, but for smaller pharma and R&D companies for whom spending a lot of money, in addition to implementing a locally based LIMS, on cyber security solutions might not be an option, cloud based LIMS in the form of SaaS offers an added layer of protection both in terms of liability but as well in the preservation of their data.
Data protection is obviously the first concern here, as storing data in a web based cloud system leaves it vulnerable to cyber security threats that a non-web based hardware would not. Consider it thusly, all the computers in your laboratory and building are connected via a single wired LAN network with no external internet access. This would make it almost impossible to penetrate for a security threat, which is one step behind having computers with no networked access at all (think Battlestar Galactica my fellow sci-fi lovers). This means the only model of cloud computing available for a laboratory is a private cloud, one owned, or provided to, by the company, of which no one outside of the network should have access to. This is the most secure method of cloud computing but it means the lab still requires external access which means there is a vulnerability. We also have practical issues for when real time control is essential as there is a time delay, however small, between the user who is physically separate from the cloud structure, which means something like a spectrometer system will have a time delay over the web based cloud which will not be acceptable. In addition, with the massive data sets incurred from this, easily in excess of 1 GB, the upload and download of these files could be problematic and time consuming. There are labs where this will be practically usable, for instance with Quality Management Systems where incremental time delays will not be immediately problematic, but it still limits the usefulness of SaaS cloud based LIMS. This is of course offset by having a dedicated and open line to the cloud computing site, but such a set up would also likely be costlier, mitigating the immediate cost benefit of using a cloud based system.
The cloud is still a developing medium though it has come far in recent years and in all probability the issues of time delay will likely be completely resolved within the next few years as some providers and technologies are already achieving this. SaaS cloud LIMS systems are doubtless the future of the system but important questions still need to be asked regarding data preservation and security, especially amongst force majeure issues hitting such a provider (which could result in irretrievable data or unreasonable down times). All things being equal it is currently the most useful version of LIMS for the vast majority of labs, especially SME pharma and R&D companies who form the technical majority.
There is still a way to go until the system is perfected and in all probability by that time we'll have just hit the technology trigger for the next big thing in data storage and system implementation, but thus is the never-ending march of technology. Let's just hope that by the time we've perfected laboratory informatics that the Cylons haven't taken over already.