As Electronic Lab Notebooks (ELNs) roll out across more and more industries, there are discussions on whether ELNs in the Cloud are now mature enough for consideration.
An important consideration is where to host and maintain your valuable R&D data.
In deciding this, one of the first choices to consider is whether you are talking about an on-premise ELN or a remote, cloud-based ELN. Here is a summary from my experience of things to seriously think about.
First a few clarifications and definitions we should make around Cloud, SaaS and On-Premise:
On-Premise - On-Premise is the traditional ELN installed and maintained by the organization’s IT staff, behind the corporate firewall.
SaaS - I also want to speak briefly about what SaaS means. In its simplest form it means subscription based payment for the service, wherein if you stop paying for the service you no longer have access to the software because you don’t own the licences. A SaaS environment would host the ELN on servers not owned by you and external to your organization. SaaS is typically a multi-tenant environment, meaning many organizations share the same server, while each organization’s data is segregated. This is typically aimed at organizations with fewer than 50 ELN users. For the sake of precise definition, SaaS is Cloud.
Private Cloud - But there is another Cloud variant I will discuss, and for the purposes of this article, I will call it Private Cloud. Private Cloud offers dedicated external hosting where there is only a single tenant and typically includes managed services. This is not to be confused with Cloud in the sense of say, iCloud from Apple, where one simply rents storage or backup space. A Private Cloud environment typically follows the SaaS subscription model for licensing.
So this is where the core ELN application software resides – in one of these three environment types. Whether the ELN is accessed by a thick-client, a browser-based client or a mobile device is irrelevant, because in theory the ELN will appear and operate identically, thus creating the same user experience.
Here are 6 questions to consider when thinking about moving to an ELN in the Cloud:
1. How much of the full ELN functionality do you get in the Cloud version?
SaaS based Cloud hosted software is typically less expensive than on-premise Enterprise software, which is not surprising considering that SaaS-based cloud ELN systems are typically very light weight products. Their selling points are based on simplicity, ease of use and no requirement for internal IT support. This leads to concerns about whether the product is suitable for all scientists. Some questions to ask include:
- Does it offer the full chemistry or biology functionality provided by the on-premise ELN?
- How much configuration can you do with the cloud based ELN? In my experience, most scientists always request some configuration and with multi-tenant, SaaS-based cloud ELNs, there are limits to what you can do to meet this request. This is because the base platform is designed to meet the majority needs of the majority of users for smaller organizations.
- Do you need any customization of the software? In a multi-tenant SaaS-based system this is probably not possible as this would lead to overhead complexity, more dedicated administration, and thus a higher cost. Additionally, because it is a shared environment, customization for one tenant would percolate across all tenants.
- Is there a requirement for integration? Multi-tenant ELNs cannot usually be integrated to lab systems or equipment such as LIMS, which can be a major inconvenience for some scientists. However Private Cloud ELNs can be configured to integrate to these systems.
- Can the cloud based ELN grow as your business grows? For example, typically an organization may start off with a small number of users, perhaps 10 or 15, on a multi-tenant, SaaS-based cloud ELN. If you need to expand the ELN to 100 or more users, can you migrate your cloud based ELN back to an on-premise ELN or a Private Cloud environment? This is not as simple or as inexpensive as it may seem, if at all possible. Obviously a multi-tenant SaaS-based system, by its very nature, should be able to scale to large numbers of users. But typically they do not, and performance tends to degrade. Private Cloud ELNs though can work at a large-scale, since the infrastructure is dedicated and thus can be scaled.
2. Are cloud based ELNs faster to roll out?
Multi-tenant, SaaS-based cloud systems are very fast to rollout, mainly because no configuration is possible, as mentioned above. They are typically referred to as “plug-n-play” ELNs, where what you see is what you get. In other words, what I refer to as a fixed-function device. On the other hand, Private Cloud and on-premise ELNs require a bit more time, usually a function of the level of configuration requested. But the key take-away is that these ELN environments can be tailored to exacting requirements.
In terms of training times, this is more a function of the particular ELN itself, irrespective of whether it’s cloud or on-premise. Multi-tenant, SaaS-based systems by their simplistic nature and basic features should require little training. Dedicated systems, whether Private Cloud or on-premise, will require additional time to roll out, depending on the functions being utilized and the amount of configuration and customization required.
3. What’s the difference in total cost of ownership in reality?
An on-premise option certainly requires the most investment, taking into account hardware acquisition, maintenance, IT support and general overhead. In my experience, the chief difference in the long term involves the extra time it takes to do maintenance for on-premise servers, as there are always competing projects and downtime is difficult to plan. It’s seems quite common for on-premise ELNs to only get major updates and the intermediate ones tend to be skipped.
SaaS-based cloud environments have a significant advantage, because downtime can be minimized and maintenance and updates are completed by the vendor. However, one doesn’t get any choice in when that downtime occurs. In most cases, multi-tenant SaaS-based cloud users can be sure of always having the latest version of the ELN available to them.
In the Private Cloud environment, users can also be more confident of being on the latest version of the ELN, and while the cost is higher than a SaaS-based cloud environment, it is also significantly less than an on-premise environment. Private Cloud typically includes full managed services to compliment the ELN, so there is far more flexibility in terms of support, maintenance and downtime.
4. Will external collaborators find it easier to work with a cloud based ELN?
External users will find either cloud (multi-tenant SaaS and Private Cloud) faster to access if the alternative for accessing an on-premise ELN is to go through a firewall and into a VPN. Because the external collaborator only needs permission-based security for access, the additional layer of VPN tunnelling is eliminated.
5. Are security and data integrity comparable between on-premise and cloud based ELNs?
Cloud hosting vendors must provide reassurance that their data centers are certified for 24x7 uptime availability, that back-ups are consistently executed and that they have systems in place to minimise the risks associated with transmission security. The hosting organization will typically specify that they are SaaS 70, Type II compliant. This is something that should absolutely be demanded when choosing a hosting vendor. Although there may be comparable data integrity and security between cloud and on-premise environments, still today many organizations prefer to work with on-premise ELNs because of security concerns and residence of their IP behind their own firewall.
6. Can a cloud-based ELN be validated in the same way an on-premise ELN is?
With increasing regulation across many industries, this question appears more often. The key question is how to validate any configuration that is carried out during or after installation. In a Private Cloud environment, because managed services are included, the vendor is usually more amenable to working through validation with the subscriber organization. Much the same as on-premise, there are typically additional costs to consider, such as a second ELN environment for validation purposes, where the downtime on the production ELN is minimized.
In conclusion, like many other applications, cloud based ELNs have come a long way and are definitely worth considering, especially if you already have experience with dedicated hosting of other applications.