There are a growing number of LIMS solutions available to laboratories. Selecting the best choice for a laboratory requires a careful evaluation of the potential solutions. Perhaps the most important variable in this process involves ensuring that the LIMS meets the critical needs of the lab, which in turn requires a measure of awareness on the part of laboratory management. A comprehensive audit of laboratory needs and prioritization of those findings is a critical first step before selecting a LIMS. This audit should include input from all of the laboratory staff, not just the manager, in order to paint the most complete and objective picture of your laboratory operations, as well as identify pain points. From there, your LIMS solution evaluation relies on comparing the different features available in terms of both budget and laboratory needs.
The comparison of LIMS solutions requires not just scrutiny of the different systems, but also of the different software vendors behind them. Understanding the level of validation, security, reliability, and other such characteristics that each vendor bears can help provide for the smoothest possible implementation. No laboratory wants to cycle through multiple LIMS solutions; the preferred route is to carefully select the most suitable option, and then use it on a long-term basis.
Navigating the prioritization of needs from a LIMS solution as well as its software provider can get tricky. Understanding the types of needs to consider prioritizing can be helpful.
Features and Functionality
What specific features should you look for in your LIMS solution? This aspect of review will likely be the main focus of your LIMS software comparison.
These features and functionalities to review can include:
- Data parameters to be collected and stored with every sample
- Environmental monitoring
- Task scheduling
- Documentation of quality control testing
- Tracking and scheduling of individual samples' storage and usage
- Documentation of sample processing protocols
- Configurable fields
- Workflow management
One way lab managers can objectively evaluate and compare various LIMS solutions is to create a grading rubric with each LIMS vendor in each column and your desired features and functionalities in each row. Then you can easily visualize which solution offers (or does not offer) the features you are looking for. More advanced comparison rubrics may rate each functionality on a specific LIMS with a value from 1 to 5.
In order for this rating schema to work, each functionality must be rated on whether the LIMS solution under review meets the need, and to what extent—instead of whether it executes each functionality according to the specific desired design. Every user should expect to adapt somewhat to the workflows imparted by a LIMS; what is most important is whether it has a usable interface that allows for easy recording and documentation.
It is also important to steer clear of asking vendors to conform their products to your desired design. The existing vendor designs have been tested and validated, so all questions should be about whether the product meets the lab’s central needs out-of-the-box—not about how the software interface looks. Laboratories that implement LIMS solutions very close to the out-of-the-box solution avoid unnecessary customization costs. Even more importantly, LIMS solutions implemented with minimal customization are validated by the vendor, require less detailed validation when implemented and are easier to defend in the event of an audit
Review how the LIMS solution is structured and stored: is it on-premise, or is it stored on the cloud either as a PaaS (platform-as-a-service) or SaaS (software-as-a-service) solution?
A laboratory might benefit the most from identifying a vendor that offers its LIMS as all three of these solutions. This allows the laboratory to have maximum flexibility over time as its computing structure and needs evolve.
It’s critical to evaluate security features of each LIMS solution. Different industries have particular security guidelines that must be adhered to, and your LIMS solution is no exception. The best vendors will also be able to provide documentation reflecting the results of validation tests to substantiate the built-in security features of their solutions.
Different industries might require different levels of security and data protection. Standard across all industries will be a requirement for the secure storage of data wherever the platform is housed—whether on-premise or on the cloud. Access to the data must also be controlled, typically through the use of unique user IDs and passwords. HIPAA compliance in data security and SSL encryption will likely also be required across many, if not all laboratory industries.
Depending on the other software platforms used within the laboratory as well as by individual pieces of equipment handling samples within the laboratory, the ability to integrate the LIMS processes with other software and hardware might be worth noting. Direct integration increases the opportunities for direct data transfer, which in turn can preserve data integrity, maximize opportunities for automation, and reduce the role of human error. It also helps keep data accessible to all members of the lab, positioned exactly where they will need to use it.
If direct API integration is not possible, then the next best thing to evaluate is the ease of exporting data into formats that may be easily uploaded into other platforms already in use by the laboratory.
Onboarding, Maintenance, and Support
Leading software vendors offer robust onboarding platforms, warranties, built-in maintenance schedules, and ongoing support. Whether the software experiences some sort of glitch or a lab member needs some clarification on best practices in using the LIMS solution, it is important to know that support will be available to answer their questions. It is also important to ensure that the LIMS solution is proactively maintained, so that it may consistently serve the laboratory.
Even a brief outage or malfunction could leave a major gap in its records, compromising the implementation to an extent. Directly asking the software vendor about outages, response time, and plans of action to get ahead of any glitches is one way to assess the level of support that may be expected with that particular LIMS. Another question to ask in order to manage expectations around the LIMS is about the frequency of LIMS updates; this can then be followed with questions that include what is the general frequency with which the platform is updated, how are these updates announced and deployed, how long do any update-associated outages last, and so forth.
Cost and Payment Structure
The cost discussion will likely begin with a menu of options or tiers of pricing that the software vendor can provide. It is always worth negotiating costs, particularly when researching multiple vendors with different price points as well as features. All things considered, what is the total cost of ownership? This figure should include any ongoing or annual fees, maintenance costs, and so forth.
The other side of this cost question has to do with the payment structure. With PaaS and SaaS models, many software vendors have moved away from one upfront charge and offer subscriptions that renew over particular time periods, including monthly or annually. Generally, the longer the time period of commitment, the more of a discount the vendor will offer. What forms of payment are accepted? Is upfront payment available? How much flexibility does the vendor offer?
The structure of this payment will determine whether the LIMS solution will count as a capital expenditure or as an ongoing operational expense, with the potential for it to span both classes of charge. If a vendor does not immediately offer a payment structure that fits, it is worth suggesting an alternative that is a better fit for the lab; the vendor might be able to accommodate this after all.
Most laboratories have a target go-live date for their LIMS solution, particularly in instances where the LIMS is being implemented in response to—or in anticipation of—an audit. Each software vendor should provide a deployment and implementation timeline, which can then be compared to laboratory goals as the platform is being assessed.
A little research can go a long way in gaining clarity on a vendor's reputation. While reviews should always be read with a grain of salt, sometimes trends across positive or negative reviews can be telling. The comments and any industry-published reviews can be very telling about the vendors' ability to continue to develop their products to meet the ongoing, evolving needs of a particular industry. Some sleuthing can also speak to the longevity and financial stability of the vendor, which in turn relates to how long a laboratory can expect a particular LIMS to be technically supported.
Aside from independently researching the brand, it is worth asking for customer reviews and testimonials. Often, reviews can speak volumes about a particular vendor's reliability, support, and adherence to their commitments.
Current Customer Base
It is worth understanding a vendor's experience within a particular industry, since more experienced vendors will have a better grasp of industry requirements as well as pain points, and can build—and validate—their product accordingly. Every potential customer should ask their vendor for customer references from individuals in or close to their field. This allows for a private, candid conversation about the customer's experiences with the product as well as its possible limitations. While it's not likely that any one LIMS will be absolutely identical to what a manager dreams of for their lab, it is worth making sure that any possible issues fall within the range of what is acceptable for the laboratory.
Careful vetting will allow for a successful LIMS solutions comparison, to identify the best fit for a laboratory's implementation. This tool will then allow for automation from sample receipt and processing through storage testing and disposal. By automating processes, large batches can more easily be accommodated and the effects of human error can become a non-issue—after all, it's the LIMS solution managing the documentation.