The availability of cloud-based solutions continues to widen, and laboratories face decisions about which systems to adopt. Some labs have even shifted to the cloud completely, outsourcing their experiments to third parties.
Laboratories that don't switch to the cloud could be left behind, but it's important to know what you're getting into. This piece compares cloud computing against on-premise systems and reveals the key benefits and drawbacks of shifting to the cloud.
On-premise servers vs. cloud systems
Cloud systems use remote servers to store, manage, and process data and are typically controlled by third-party providers. Cloud systems also replace many non-digitized systems, such as paper notebooks, logbooks, and physical files.
On the other hand, on-premise computing systems involve on-site hardware managed by internal teams.
A key difference between the two types of systems is that you are responsible for the required hardware and software when you use on-premise solutions. You need space to store the necessary equipment and the utilities and staff to operate and maintain it.
When using cloud systems, third-party providers are responsible for operating and maintaining the servers for updates and security. When you need additional support for on-premise systems, an IT expert might need to make an on-site visit, whereas cloud systems can be managed remotely.
Types of cloud systems available
When it comes to laboratory software, different types of cloud services are available. Many mass-market services, including generic storage and collaboration options, have stepped up their game and are suitable for laboratory use.
For example, Dropbox holds various certifications that may satisfy applicable laboratory standards. That said, it’s important to examine the terms and policies of such solutions to ensure they meet your needs from both a practical and regulatory standpoint. Other industry-agnostic tools that may be useful for lab staff include goal-setting software, risk analysis tools, and project management platforms.
Dropbox emphasizes its compliance features in its marketing materials.
Many products are designed specifically for lab use and equipped with the appropriate security level for laboratory activities. Indeed, modern labs use a broad range of cloud software solutions, including laboratory information management systems (LIMSs), electronic lab notebooks (ELNs), collaboration tools, inventory management systems, and policy management software.
Colabra is a cloud-based solution that offers multiple features, including an ELN and project management tools.
The benefits and risks of cloud computing
Shifting to cloud systems can provide a wealth of benefits, including:
- Cost savings: By opting for cloud services, organizations can avoid capital investments in IT infrastructure. Aside from hardware expenses, on-premise systems take up space, increasing real estate and utility costs. Instead, cloud providers charge monthly or annual subscription fees, classified as operating expenses. There are no surprises for upgrades or failures and can scale for multiple users.
- Flexibility: Low capital expenditure equates to low commitment, and many cloud systems can be upgraded or switched out with relative ease.
- Ease of maintenance: Cloud systems are managed entirely by third parties, requiring minimal maintenance by in-house staff. Providers take care of updates, backups, recovery, and support.
- Reliability: Keeping their service running effectively is the primary objective for a cloud provider, and they hire top experts to ensure this goal is met. This means you don’t have to worry about downtime or interruptions, and if there is an issue, you have the best minds working to fix it immediately. In contrast, on-premise issues can often lead to lengthy delays and lowered productivity.
- Accessibility: In the age of remote teams, there’s an increasing expectation to access systems from anywhere at any time. With the right permissions, cloud platforms can be accessed from any device with an internet connection. This means you can still access your data even if your local systems are corrupted.
- Scalability: Many cloud providers offer scalable solutions, only charging you for the resources you use.
- Collaboration: The centralization of data in cloud systems allows for improved collaboration as you can provide and access real-time updates from anywhere.
- Security: Connections and data are encrypted within cloud platforms. This encryption is usually client-side so that if connections are intercepted, the data is incomprehensible, even to the cloud provider.
- Compliance: Many cloud systems come with built-in compliance measures, so you don’t have to second-guess whether you’re adhering to industry standards.
While cloud solutions come with many benefits, there are a couple of downsides. For example, you don’t physically own the hardware where your data is stored, requiring some relinquishment of control. On-premise systems can offer value for organizations handling extremely sensitive data that can’t be entrusted to third parties.
There is also the issue of connectivity. You generally need a reliable internet connection to utilize cloud systems, so if that’s not feasible, then you should consider on-premise solutions. Many labs will take a hybrid approach, using a mixture of cloud and on-premise systems.
The future of cloud computing in laboratories
What does the shift to cloud computing mean for laboratories in the long term? Cloud systems can change the way labs are structured. With no need for IT infrastructure, there’s more flexibility in terms of size, location, and features required of facilities. Cloud systems enable more remote work, saving space and reducing facility footprints.
Lab managers can pick and choose services as they’re needed and no longer have to commit to solutions over the long term. This allows teams to remain flexible, utilizing new technologies as they arise, instead of being stuck with poorly-performing legacy systems.
Within all of this, a strong pattern emerges in lowering barriers of entry to many industries. Cloud systems are the difference-makers in startups and can help organizations break into previously inaccessible areas and compete against incumbents. Laboratories are traditionally static in the type of work they carry out, but cloud systems pave the way for a more agile and dynamic approach.
Integrating cloud systems isn’t always entirely straightforward, so organizations still need to choose wisely before trying out new software. You need to consider how well the platform fits your needs and other factors such as cost, ease of integration, and user-friendliness.
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