Posted by: John H. Jones | July 12, 2009

SaaS – Is a web hosted LIMS right for your laboratory?

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What is a Web Hosted (SaaS) LIMS & is it right for your lab?  Simply put, a web hosted or SaaS LIMS is a (Laboratory Information Management System) that is a licensed, web hosted subscription that is paid for on a low monthly or annual fee basis as opposed to a customer, on-site installed, lump sum license purchase.  The LIMS exists on a provider’s server instead of at your lab or business, and users access it through the web.  So why would this benefit your lab? 

The main difference between a subscription hosted LIMS and and a direct purchase "on-site LIMS" is the initial cost and total cost of ownership (TCO).  The hosted LIMS is many times less expensive than the direct purchase model and thus allows more labs to get a high end LIMS applications deployed quicker and with less total cost than the traditional model.  Often the total annual cost for a hosted LIMS is less than the annual maintenance costs alone for the direct purchased LIMS. 

The hosted LIMS will change the face of the LIMS industry over the next three to five years by lowering the total cost of LIMS for the laboratory including implementation, maintenance and support costs while delivering more functionality for less.  This article provides information and references to support this new trend.

The best of the web hosted LIMS are deployed using the latest SaaS (Software as a Service) delivery model, which leverages cloud computing and Web 2.0 technologies to provide, according to Amanda Finch in the e-Commerce Times, “…greatly reduced time-to-deployment, low upfront costs (for less approval-process drag) and much less need for scarce IT staff involvement. The result is lower business risk by eliminating "bet-the-company" deployment steamrollers, unpredictable cost spikes, and upgrade or maintenance nightmares. For these and other reasons, about 25 percent of business software will be delivered under the SaaS model by 2011, according to recent predictions.”

The key here for a successful laboratory solution is SaaS.

What is SaaS?

SaaS is a model of software deployment where an application is licensed for use as a service provided to customers on demand. On demand licensing and use alleviates the customer’s burden of equipping a device with every application. It also reduces traditional software licensing, maintenance, ongoing operation patches, and patch support complexity in an organization. On demand licensing enables software to become a variable expense, rather than a fixed cost at the time of purchase. It also enables licensing only the amount of software needed versus traditional licenses per device. SaaS also enables the buyer to share licenses across their organization and between organizations, to reduce the cost of acquiring licenses for every device in their firm.

But more than that, it is characterized by the intelligent use of today’s technology to meet a number of needs for businesses more ably than before, not least of which is drastically reducing system costs. It includes the Multi-tenant concept, allowing many customers to be served from a single point, while ensuring separation of access to data (usually by use of virtual private servers). That means utilization rates can improve, as servers are not left idle, which can reduce costs significantly, and load balancing across a series of servers ensures efficient use per kw/hr. A side effect of this approach is that computer capacity rises dramatically. Adoption has been enabled by increased high-speed bandwidth which makes it possible to receive the same response times from centralized infrastructure as other sites.

Watch the following 3 minute video to learn more about SaaS:

Benefits of SaaS

The immediate take-away from all this as a business or laboratory owner or manager is the ‘be still my beating heart” realization that it may be possible to have a highly functional LIMS right away, without having to tackle hardware and software compatibility issues, IT department scheduling, maintenance and upgrades and all that goes with all of that – and at virtually no initial cost and negligible monthly rates! And for the small to medium business or lab, or for a start-up, that changes everything. Here are some facts published in techtarget.com in July 2008:

  • A survey last year by Forrester Research Inc. found that 16% of large enterprises and 15% of small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are using SaaS. That’s a 33% increase in the large-enterprise sector from the previous year and a 50% increase in the SMB segment.
  • And CIOs, especially in the midmarket, say they’re happy. In May, for example, a survey by consulting firm Saugatuck Technology Inc. found that 95% of IT execs at midmarket companies were satisfied with SaaS programs, higher than the overall satisfaction rate of 84%.

Techtarget goes on to quote users and industry experts:

 

Now that SaaS has matured and offers more options, many sourcing teams are reconsidering whether SaaS will work for their firms," noted Liz Herbert, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester.

 

"There are areas where it’s a no-brainer," says Bill McArthur, vice president of information services and technology at Scientific Games Corp. in New York. "On the enterprise side, for one. Why buy if you can rent? It reduces your TCO [Total Cost of Ownership] and your footprint."

"The downside is the perception of your engineers that they like full control of the apps, and total control of your data center," McArthur said. "You have to give up some of that. But administratively, having the apps outside and not on your server farm is a breath of fresh air."

And while the SaaS model obviously looks attractive to the SMB market, Ray Wang, an analyst for Forrester Research, Inc., a well-known technology and market research company, says:

"While SaaS is largely thought of as software used by small and mid-sized businesses, enterprises are the largest users. For instance, last year, Singapore-based Flextronics International Ltd. began implementing Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Workday Inc.’s SaaS to replace 80 human resources systems used in 30 countries in support of 200,000 employees."

 Here’s a bottom line summary of the benefits of the SaaS-based hosted model:

  • Low Cost of Entry

The traditional model has demanded that labs/businesses go through an extended RFP/proposal/negotiation/demo process which in itself costs thousands in man hours, then pay a license fee costing $10,000 – 100,000 before they even install the software, let alone configure and customize it. The SaaS subscription model for a LIMS typically requires a small configuration and/or training fee (around $1000-$2000) if anything up front, then just a monthly fee, which can be as low as $295. Even over a software’s lifetime, a viable SaaS solution will be well below LIMS costing $200,000 – $500,000. And the SaaS model lifetime is effectively infinite, since upgrades are included. Even any training and configuration needed won’t require travel costs.  A recent example by the Yankee Group showed a typical 500 seat Salesforce.com installation had almost nine times the TCO savings vs. a traditional in-house CRM application.

Use ITBusinessEdge’s SaaS vs On Premise TCO Calculator to compare:

http://www.itbusinessedge.com/cm/docs/1201

  • No Infrastructure/IT

Rather than do an impact study to assess hardware and software requirements and compatibility, look at IT personnel resource availability, project maintenance time and costs, etc. – or in fact CREATE an IT department if one doesn’t already exist…you can cut to the chase and get going pretty much immediately. All you require is internet access and standard office computers (PC or Mac – it won’t make a difference).

  • Low Risk/High ROI

The lack of need for huge up-front investment means businesses/labs haven’t burned any bridges. You can simply cancel service any time with no penalties and no great loss of investment. Subscribers are very quickly enjoying the benefits of an operational system at minimal investment, which remains at a healthy ratio as long as the service continues – releasing healthy cash flow for other endeavors.

  • Economies of Scale

Just like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, SaaS providers can offer you much more for much less because of the specialized use of technology. Because each system isn’t “hand-configured” according to individual customer IT environments, and because many customers can make use of the same resources at the same data center, costs are slashed and the savings passed onto the customer.

  • Unlimited Scalability

Subscriptions are tiered by number of concurrent users in most cases. If you need more, just ask. The SaaS provider’s resources are for all practical purposes unlimited (if demand approaches resource limits, the economics fully support additional resources). And good SaaS subscriptions also offer a selection of other applications and/or modular add-ons for your main application, so you can grow or shrink feature/function-wise (horizontally) as well as throughput or user-wise.

  • Improved Data Security

The SaaS provider has a critical need to ensure a high level of data security. Rather than being a secondary concern as it is in most businesses who are more interested in pursuing their core functions; secure, dependable provisioning IS the SaaS host’s core business. Therefore, they typically employ the latest, state-of-the-art data centers and equipment, and configure virtual private servers with redundancy and backups to ensure the greatest protection possible. The use of SSL (Secure Socket Layer) encryption has shown itself to be the Fort Knox of data security, and professional data centers have multiple layers of physical security, including armed guards, bio scan, ID cards and magnetic swipes. Your data is more secure in a good SaaS environment than on your office PC.

  • Quicker Deployment

Cutting out the IT factor means a reduction in deployment time. Anyone who has tried to install a driver or application on a computer knows the demonic ease with which a simple operation can turn into a prolonged nightmare. There’s no assessment of IT environment, scheduling of resources and wrestling with compatibility. That means your resources can be focused on any training and configuration needed for your workflow right away, shortening the overall time to Go Live.

  • Unlimited Secure Access

Precisely controlled by login permissions, use of a SaaS application is not restricted to a single workstation, office or even location. Staff and customers can check sample statuses, results and access reports from their laptop at the airport or while attending a conference across the world. Sharing of data, especially according to the demands of labs or business that must meet SOX , ISO, CFR, HIPAA or other regulatory standards is made much easier, since the requirements of SaaS environments mandate GxP compliance consistent with these standards.

  • Free-up IT Department for Better Allocation

If you already have an IT department, then using a SaaS solution allows them to concentrate on maintaining the existing systems well, rather than giving them even less time to attend to quality assurance and pro-active improvements in performance.

  • Upgrade Assurance

In the SaaS model, any patches or upgrades may be applied when ready, and consistently across customer applications. You don’t risk faulty deployment of fixes, upgrades or versions, and you always have the latest and greatest.

  • No Lock-In

Since you haven’t invested heavily both time-wise and cash-wise, you can feel free to change your solution if you suddenly decide it’s not meeting your needs. And you aren’t stuck with an obsolete purchased application for which you have no support.

  • More Than LIMS

Since the SaaS hosted model is ideally suited to offering more than one application, some providers include a generous selection of open source applications for free, including CRM, Time Tracking, Help Desk, e-Commerce, Accounting, Productivity and more, plus additional programs available for purchase/download. 

What Should I look for in a Good SaaS Provider?

Since your money (and data) are bet on a hosted model, probably the most important thing to look for is that the provider operates from a good quality data center (or two!). It’s important that operational uptime, data protection, redundancy and overall data protection and security be at least as good, and preferably better than your own capabilities.

 

Data Center Attributes

 

1.       Security – This applies to both physical security (who has access to the servers? Can anyone see data from any workstation? Could someone just walk in and pull the plug and shut you down?), and to data access security, like password protection, hacker protection etc. Look for a SAS 70 Type II certification. This means it has been reviewed regarding its practices and facilities, and there will be a comprehensive report you can study. Moreover, unlike the type I certification, it means they are regularly inspected and any changes noted.
 
Physical
The standard for good data centers includes multi-layer physical security, like barbed-wire topped perimeter walls, armed gate guards, reinforced concrete building, video surveillance and the like. Customers are issued with picture IDs which they must produce at entry check points. In addition, hand-scan (biometric) ID and magnetic card swipes should be required. Unauthorized entry is made near impossible by the use of multiple methods.
 
Data/File Access
Data security is an area those hesitant about off-site hosting often cite as a concern. The fact is that banks, mortgage companies, public health authorities, state and federal governments and countless other sources of sensitive information have been transferring data on the Internet and sharing form off-site hosted servers for a long time now. SSL encryption has proved itself basically impenetrable. The reality is that data are no safer on anyone’s PC/Mac or workstation connected to the Internet than on a hosting server. And since it is their core business, SaaS provider data are more protected than most. The important thing is that the proper security configurations are in place for any firewalls and the servers and applications. Data centers are optimized for this, and a good SaaS provider will know how best to configure his systems, since that is central to business. Virtualization, especially the use of virtual private servers, helps keep different customers’ data separate and inaccessible to unauthorized users. Check the SAS 70 certification report for details of how your data are protected.
 
2.       Reliability – This is the greatest advantage of using a data center. They are designed to be completely self-sufficient. At your office, lab or home, if there is a power cut you can suffer catastrophic loss of data in addition to being out of operation for as long as it lasts. Some implement backup generators or have some battery backup, but data centers are set up to make a smooth transition to battery, then generator, with seamless operation. And the generators in a good data center can sustain power for extended periods – days, week, months, if necessary.
 
Your SaaS provider should have servers set up with real time backup, known as continuous data protection or near-continuous data protection, as a disaster recovery method. And servers should be arranged in a RAID array. In fact, some providers will even backup to an entirely different data center as further insurance against the extremely remote possibility that a data center goes down.
 
Additionally, data centers are monitored 24/7/365 by staff using specially-designed building management software that, for instance, maintains temperature at designated sensor points to within very small tolerances, water and air flow rates, etc.
 
Overall, there is no greater assurance of reliability of hardware and software than that provided by a modern data center, especially one certified SAS 70 Type II.
 
3.       Performance – Performance of your application(s) is a function of the amount and type of resources (disk space, memory, processing speed) available for it and their optimal configuration. Add to this the dynamic nature of business, where data are added and modified and operations performed constantly, plus periodic service packs and other adjustments to the applications themselves. Then add user error or inadequate training or abilities on the part of IT personnel or other staff who are tasked with maintaining systems. It’s no surprise that you probably don’t know anyone who has used a computer without ever encountering less than ideal performance.
 
Again, in a data center, it is a core issue to offer the very best conditions for optimal performance. High capacity redundant data lines, precisely controlled environments and the like are aimed at customers getting the very best possible performance from their equipment and applications. And SaaS providers are also in the business of providing high quality performance, or else they will not be in business very long. Check on the equipment, configurations and practices in place that address performance. Your operations should not be measurably affected by the number of users – either yours or anyone else’s, or the amount of data being processed. Some things to look for include effective load balancing, upgrade/fix deployment methodology that does not interrupt service and regular, high quality hardware replacement/upgrades so that you always enjoy the most recent technology.

4.       Access – The beauty of any hosted or SaaS application is that you can access it anywhere. Sufficient resources in the data center will ensure instant access from any location in the world for authorized users. Related to performance, it will hinge on the bandwidth they offer and their firewall and other data security settings. The SAS 70 report will address these.

SaaS Provider Offerings

If the data center(s) being used is ok, it’s now about the SaaS provider themselves and what they offer you. Things to consider: 

1.       User Control – This is a real concern for many who prefer their applications onsite. There is always a feeling that “if it’s under my own roof I have control.” If you feel that way, it’s good to choose a service that provides you with a control panel application that lets you manage your own account. That way you have the best of both worlds: a system featuring the best equipment, maintenance and flexibility possible at the lowest possible cost, but the satisfaction of being able to make any modifications to the account yourself. In fact, this model outshines many in-house setups, especially in large organizations, where even minor requests may involve a time-consuming approval and sign-off protocols.
 
2.       Selection of Applications – As we touched on earlier, SaaS is uniquely suited to the provision of more than one software application for any given account. The more astute provider will include a wide selection of software useful for your lab or business, many of them open-source and free with your main subscription, hand-picked to offer added value. In addition, they will have a menu of other programs and modules you can add to your account either as a one-time fee or rolled into the monthly subscription. Types of applications can include: 
      • Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS)
      • Electronic Laboratory Notebook (ELN)
      • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
      • Enterprise Content Management (ECM)
      • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
      • Learning Management Systems (LMS)
      • Ecommerce
      • Help Desk
      • A wide variety of industry specific applications
      • and much more….
3.       Service/Support – The world of SaaS demands a new level of responsiveness from providers. Software manufacturers who sell you a license for their software basically have the upper hand because you probably have a sizable investment stake in their product. SaaS providers, on the other hand, know you can choose to end your subscription anytime with little economic repercussion, so they are motivated to provide real, honest-to-goodness service and support to make you successful. Most SaaS providers will fit this criterion for the reasons given, but take a look at their service/support agreement to make sure. And though this is a relatively new type of service, they probably have some clients you can talk to and get a feeling for their degree of satisfaction.
 

4.       Flexibility – Another integral feature of SaaS is its natural ability to provide flexibility in the types and number of applications, users, modules (if applicable) and any other subscription variables. So rather than being locked into a LIMS or other application that you may find too late doesn’t exactly fit your needs, you need only modify your account as necessary. If customization is required or if you prefer not to make your own configurations, most SaaS providers will also supply hourly services to tailor things to your specifications.

 

SaaS Subscription Cost

 

Now we arrive at what for many is the most compelling reason to adopt the SaaSmodel. SaaS represents the first real infrastructure-level paradigm shift for a long time that significantly shakes up cost structures for businesses (or labs).

 

An ARC advisory brief by Paula Hollywood states, “The primary drivers of SaaS adoption are low initial cost of ownership, rapid deployment, low internal IT resource profile, and improved growth management. Given these benefits, it is easy to understand why the subscription model would appeal to users, particularly small and medium sized laboratories common in the life sciences industry currently operating homegrown or informal systems (paper-based, spreadsheets, etc.) because the cost of a traditional commercial system is prohibitive.”

 

According to Ann All of IT Business Edge, “…finance executives see SaaS as a cost-effective means of getting their organizations out of software and systems management and enabling them to focus more on their core competency.”

 

Industry pundit Judith Hurwitz (http://jshurwitz.wordpress.com/2008/10/17/what-happens-to-saas-in-a-tough-economy/), regarding a tight economic climate, expressed it this way:  Customers who will still need software even in a horrible market are going to think twice about capital expenditures.  Do you really want to spend a lot on servers and storage and the like? I predict that in tough economic times paying someone a monthly or even a yearly fee and letting them buy the capital intensive stuff will be just the ticket.”

 

Technology CIO Jeffrey Pattison of INTTRA: “[SaaS]…comes with virtually zero infrastructure beyond the network and little or no maintenance burden for IT depending on the degree of integration with in-house systems.  Reducing infrastructure investments, operational management requirements and upgrade costs provide SaaS solutions a huge advantage in Total Costs of Ownership (TCO).  A recent example by the Yankee Group showed a typical 500 seat Salesforce.com installation had almost nine times the TCO savings vs. a traditional in-house CRM application.”

 

The bottom line is that the bottom line is much lower than what businesses, and especially laboratories who need a LIMS, have had to deal with in the past, with no sacrifice in functionality or service. In fact, there is an actual improvement in these areas.

 

There are three main ways a SaaS subscription is cost-effective:

 

1.       Low initial outlay. A huge barrier to LIMS or similar complex systems has been the considerable initial investment. This is in the form of license fees, but also usually includes travel costs and, typically, a drawn-out RFP/Proposal process (think man-hours – and diversion from their regular work), not to mention studies of IT compatibility issues, and then one of the biggest in the inevitable purchase of new servers, workstations, routers etc. to support the new boon to your operation… A SaaS subscription, on the other hand, involves little or no up-front cash. You can stretch your investment out over time, leaving a healthy cash flow available for core operations or other advancements.

 

2.       Long Term Savings. It may be enough for you to gain the benefits of SaaS without having to use your whole budget up front. But if you plan to be in business for awhile, it will pay to assess the cost over time. Choose a provider whose subscription rate means that even over the course of ten or more years you still maintain a net savings over purchasing.

 

3.       Efficiency. The fact that you can add or drop items month-to-month means you aren’t likely to pay for features you don’t need. Nor are you unable to adopt new ones when necessary. Custom-tailor your account the way it suits you – dynamically, in step with your operational or budgetary criteria.

 

Why SaaS makes Sense for Your Lab

 

The features of SaaS hosted solutions in general we have discussed all apply equally to laboratories as much as to any other business. In fact, even labs that are part of a large corporation or government labs are essentially small businesses, with the need to manage their processes and personnel cost-effectively and productively. The SaaS model makes sense for a lab because it makes sense period.

 

But even more, labs and scientific enterprises in general, while they may certainly have use for general applications, are in an industry that demands specific and largely complex systems like LIMS. So they have typically been at the mercy of vendors who roll out long and costly onsite implementations, chiefly because they had little choice.

 

The fact that a LIMS or other complex software may be delivered using the SaaS model represents a huge opportunity for the laboratory and scientific sector. For the first time, small to mid-size labs and/or those in resource-poor countries, who were previously disenfranchised when it came to LIMS, can now share the functionality – which importantly includes increased accuracy and data-sharing capability (especially notable in the case of public health reporting, for instance) – that was once reserved only for successful, large labs or those associated with corporations or the government. Furthermore, even those “rich” labs can now choose to channel more of their resources into doing the actual science or increasing their instrument or staff capabilities.

 

Add to all of the benefits we have discussed – low cost, low risk, ease of deployment, freedom from IT/maintenance, scalability, flexibility, security, reliability, access from anywhere and the rest – add to these a difficult economic climate that compels the responsible lab or business to expend as little as possible while gaining maximum ROI (return on investment), and it is clear why we are seeing a strong positive trend in adoption of SaaS LIMS and related software. Indeed, one may be hard pressed to make a case for anything else, especially at a time when the model’s maturation and availability coincides with increased accountability for budgets and resources.

Where to go for Laboratory SaaS

By far the leading SaaS hosted LIMS provider for laboratories and scientific enterprises is LabLynx, Inc., based in Atlanta, GA, and offering both an enterprise class LIMS and a host of other business and development software with more being added constantly.

Biggest Selection, Highest Quality

Not only is webLIMS, by LabLynx, the only SaaS solution for labs to carry the enterprise class ELab LIMS but over 2 dozen other hosted business and technical applications including multiple competing LIMS offerings.  This provides our webLIMS customers with a wide choice of solutions to fit their needs in a one-stop-shop, laboratory software ecosystem.  webLIMS.com even provides hosted development tools to allow you to build your own custom solutions or integrate to other hosted and internal customer applications.

Significantly Better Subscription Cost

Amazingly, while offering the best products and services by far (state-of-the-art redundant data centers, 60-day money-back guarantee, enterprise LIMS plus…), webLIMS also comes in at the lowest subscription rate of any other SaaS provider for laboratories or scientific enterprises.

Learn More about webLIMS

To find out about the LabLynx webLIMS SaaS hosted account, visit the LabLynx web site.

So the fact is, businesses, regardless of their size, are jumping at the opportunity to meet their needs in a more comprehensive and cost-effective way than ever before, and without having to negotiate all of the technical roadblocks that have dogged IT use since its inception. The SaaS-based web hosted model has made acquiring a LIMS a lot more of a stress-free experience, allowing the users to concentrate on using the product, not building and maintaining it. Eliminating the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) headache alone would be enough to make most businesses sit up and take notice. But to do it at a significantly lower cost and faster than traditional models means IT experts and customers alike are fans of the hosted SaaS model – especially as it trends solidly upward in the midst of a gloomy economic climate overall.

Laboratories and the scientific community in general are among those embracing the SaaS model. Sonora Quest Laboratories, a major clinical lab, subscribed to a SaaS solutionto manage their healthcare billing and accounts receivable.

Still more labs are using SaaS solutions for their LIMS, to track samples and inventory, manage data, generate reports and the like. These include diverse customer base in government, manufacturing and life sciences such as the Naval health Research Center Department of Respiratory Disease Research in San Diego, Samtec (electronics materials manufacturing lab), Cypress BioScience and many others, using, in these cases, webLIMS.com from LabLynx, Inc.  Request more information on webLIMS by getting the Free LIMS Kit which provides a wealth of information on LIMS and provides detailed product demonstrations

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Responses

  1. […] Now, over a decade later, the LIMS industry has acknowledged that both web browser based LIMS and web hosted SaaS (Software as a Service) LIMS are both the present and the future of LIMS.  Expect to see more LIMS companies follow the LabLynx lead by offering web hosted SaaS LIMS built on web browser technologies.  Read: SaaS – Is a web hosted LIMS right for your laboratory? […]

  2. […] To learn more about what Cloud Computing / SaaS can do for laboratories you will also want to read the LIMS Journal article “SaaS – Is a web hosted LIMS right for your laboratory?” […]


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