Over the years there has been considerable grumbling about the cost of a LIMS to the point that LIMS vendors have often been vilified and equated with some of the worst thieves and scoundrels in history. Even though it was commonly accepted that it does cost quite a lot to develop, enhance, maintain, and support a LIMS, the actual software license costs and support fees just seemed way out of line to many organizations and labs.
So it was inevitable that onto the informatics scene a Free LIMS, or as it is referred to today, an Open Source LIMS would appear. A huge sigh of relief could be heard around the globe! Finally, we can run our labs efficiently and effectively without mortgaging our operation or securing a major grant to do so. But is a Free LIMS really free? And if so, does the old adage “you get what you pay for” apply?
According to LIMSwiki, which is a great resource, there are 21 open source LIMS currently available. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and were developed in different environments. Most are very specialized LIMS like ones designed to manage genomics labs, proteomics labs or other high data volume environments. There are also open source LIMS that are oriented towards managing biospecimens and freezers. Most were created in academic labs or research institutes to solve their particular data and sample management issues. After developing these tools and then using them for a time they were then made available as freeware/open source systems.
There are, however, very few Free LIMS that come close to offering as full a feature and capability set as their for cost cousins. There is even some debate in the informatics community as to whether there are any truly viable, full featured, open source LIMS available today. In fact a new effort, OLiMS, was recently launched to fill that void on a supportable enterprise platform.
One of the largest expenses incurred when automating your laboratory with any LIMS is the cost to implement the solution. We are not talking about installing the LIMS, although that does take effort and resources. We are talking about understanding your needs and requirements and then configuring, tailoring, and perhaps even customizing the LIMS to meet those needs. The cost for implementing a full featured LIMS to support a mid-sized to large laboratory organization can be twice the cost of the software licenses in the traditional LIMS world.
In the Free LIMS world, the time and expense associated with understanding and documenting your requirements and then implementing your LIMS solution do not magically evaporate. They are still present. The question, however, will become “Who is going to do these tasks?” Of course, LIMS consultants are available to help with the needs and requirements gathering, workflow analysis, etc. However, there is no LIMS vendor to turn to for implementation services and it is highly unlikely that a LIMS consultant with expertise in the Open Source LIMS would be easily located. There might be an active open source community where you can seek advice, help and support, but the reality is, you most likely will be on your own.
Interestingly, there is at least one full featured, broad based, open source LIMS provider available today that does offer implementation and support services. In essence they are actually pseudo-vendors that are utilizing the Free LIMS paradigm to make revenue for the company via the services provided.
Assuming that you have your Free LIMS up and running and your users are engaged actively with the system, there will come a time when you will have a problem with the system. It is as inevitable as the Borg! With an Open Source LIMS you may have a community to turn to in order to get help with your issue but you may also be on your own. There are some organizations that do offer Support Services for open source LIMS on either a contract or per use basis. So again your Free LIMS may not really free.
Over time it is likely that you may wish to automate additional aspects of your laboratory operation that your free LIMS does not support. In the open source paradigm, you or the community may take up this item and provide additional capabilities over time. If you end up coding and testing this new feature, that is more time and expenses that you will incur.
So at the end of the day, is your Free LIMS truly free? The answer is No! There are still costs and expenses associated with them. Yes, the licenses are free but there is also a higher level of risk. That being said, depending on your environment, needs, and resource availability, a free, open source LIMS may or may not be a viable answer for you.
Are you using a Free Open Source LIMS? If so, is it meeting your needs? Are you incurring internal or external costs that you had not anticipated?