Out-of-Date Lab Tech Means Management Challenges

Out-of-Date Lab Tech Means Management Challenges | LabLynx Resources

How informatics tools like a laboratory information management systems (LIMS) can help save your lab’s data and budget

When was the last time you sent a fax?  They still find use in business where security is a concern although that presumption of a secure means of communication might be as outdated as the technology itself.  Faxes were believed to be secure because they couldn’t contain electronic malware (more on that in a second) and operated on point-to-point transmissions.  Phone lines could be tapped but that could be tested, and modern voice-over-IP (VOIP) transmissions are secured from that problem.  The malware problem? If we were going from sender to single function printer, we were ok, there was nothing for malware to attack unless you just wanted to run through a lot of paper.  However, the use of networked multifunction printers was another matter.  It is possible to include a set of commands that could give an outside “bad actor” access to those devices and then your network.[1]

We often refer to “old” technologies as “out-of-date,” “obsolete,” or “outdated,” meaning that they aren’t useful anymore or that they’ve been superseded by newer technologies. But is that really the case? Are older products useless? Not necessarily. The real concerns should be whether they work and still fulfill a purpose: are they useful? During this article, we’ll look at those points, why outdated instruments and computing software/hardware (including LIMS or LIS) are being used, and prepare to extend that useful lifetime and manage their retirement. We’ll also look at a LIMS role in managing this process.

Does “out-of-date” mean useless or unusable?

The phrases “out-of-date,” “obsolete,” and “outdated” need to be looked at a little more closely when it comes to electronics technology and their application to life in general as well as laboratory usage. First, let’s look at a couple of examples.

Pagers have been around since the late 1940s and saw a surge in popularity in the 1990s. Even though today’s most common electronic transmissions are done through a smartphone using text messages, emails, and video chats, pagers are still seeing a demand in the retail and mining sectors as well as others, where efficient communications during emergencies are crucial.

Dot matrix printers became popular in the 1970s. While inkjet and laser printers are the printers of choice in business offices now, the low-maintenance dot matrix printer can produce multiple copies (using carbon paper) and find a home in courier companies, railways, retail, and other places where the ability to make multiple copies of a document in a single pass, sometimes using preprinted multipart forms, is essential.

In both those examples, newer technologies have become available, but the unique characteristics of older products have kept them in productive use. Other instances include landline phones which have been mainly replaced by smartphones and voice-over-IP (VOIP) products. However, the benefits of landlines become important during power outages (landline phones have their own power source). And newer technologies have superseded floppy disks, including SyQuest disks, CD-ROMs, DVDs, and now wireless communications. Yet, they still find a home in many labs and federal agencies where computer systems are built around old computing technologies.

We can see the same things occurring in laboratory instrumentation and computing. For example, when I worked in a lab in the mid-1960s my introduction to infrared spectroscopy was via a Perkin Elmer 21 IR Spectrophotometer, an instrument first manufactured 20 years earlier.[2]  Its most endearing characteristics were its low cost, easy of maintenance, and reliability. Those same points are part of the reason that many labs are still running computers with Windows XP.[3]

Reliable operations are critical

Reliability is a highly desirable attribute in laboratory work. If an instrument or instrument-computer combination is working reliably, why replace it? To put it another way: “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”! Of course, that doesn’t mean that something can’t be improved, but the improvements should be seen from the point-of-view of the user, not the vendor.

There are benefits and challenges to working with out-of-date equipment or systems. Those points include the following:


  • Cost-effective: Outdated equipment may be cheaper to acquire and maintain than newer models, protecting your budget. They are also proven products, while newer products may have bugs that have to be worked out.
  • Familiarity: If people are familiar with older equipment, the learning curve is less of an issue, assuming the older equipment is up to the demands of the work.
  • Stability: This is particularly true of computer systems. Older computers and operating systems may not see the updates that are common with newer systems. This increases up-time and utility.


  • Performance limitations: Older systems may not be able to handle an increasing workload; however, if they are sufficient for managing an instrument, that may be a minor factor.
  • Obsolescence: Older computer systems may not support newer versions, including patches and updates. There are two sides to this. First, no changes yields stability, as noted above. However, if security is a factor, not keeping it current may be a problem. One solution is to keep it off an uncontrolled network and limit data transfers to secure modes.

Hardware, both with instruments and computers, must be reliable, which means maintainable. A laboratory instrument, kept in good repair and calibration, should be useful for a long period of time. The limiting factor is the availability of parts and people with the knowledge and skill to effect repairs. There are two answers to this issue. The first is to keep a stock of spare parts to address component failures. Spare parts can include backup systems; it depends on how much impact losing a particular piece of hardware will have on your lab’s operations – nothing lasts forever. The second is the availability of user groups that provide answers to questions about making repairs, locating parts, and finding qualified people to work with if what must be done exceeds your skills.

Software reliability is another issue

Once upon a time, people used to be able to repair and maintain their automobiles in their home garages. It took some skill, tools, and manuals, but it was doable. In 2023 the problem with maintaining automobiles isn’t the hardware; but rather the software; everything is managed by software[4]. The referenced article makes a case for a common software platform for on-board automotive systems.  The same holds true for instrument-computer combinations. Stability and reliability go together; they have to be built in.

Instrument vendors need a stable operating and application system environment to provide reliable software to manage their instruments. Unfortunately, updates and upgrades to the operating system and underlying applications software (e.g., databases) may adversely affect the instrument-computer system operation to the point where it no longer functions. For example, new features designed to meet the needs of the general consumer market may create issues for time-critical functions in instrument-computer interfaces and data acquisition. This is one reason some instrument vendors rely on older operating systems like Windows XP. They provide a useful set of features to build upon, and the lack of updates provides stability needed to maintain reliable operations.

Considering that any significant operating system or applications upgrade must be checked for installation verification and its operational characteristics to ensure that it was correctly installed, is operating properly, and producing reliable operations for instrument control, data acquisition, processing, and storage, plus any additional training required, avoiding the need for unnecessary changes to the software environment is a considerable cost saving.

There is another reason why a vendor might prefer to stay with an earlier operating system (OS) rather than upgrade the system. Their primary value may lie with the measurement device. The software provides user control and data storage until it is exported for work elsewhere, for example, having the data in CSV file format to be used with a spreadsheet or other software for display and analysis. In that case, it isn’t worth upgrading the system, and the measurement device and computer are considered a single functional unit – a packaged system – with two components.

The reliance on older OSs can raise issues with IT departments if there is a corporate policy that all computers run the latest versions of the operating systems. Information technology groups need to understand that the computer functions as a control unit, not a stand-alone system that might be used with other software packages. As a result, the ability to use the instrument may stop if an upgrade is attempted.

Increasing the lifetime of an outdated computer system and protecting the data using LIMS and virtualization

The LabLynx LIMS provides the right tech for the long term, reducing costs.The primary purpose of an instrument-computer system is to make measurements and put data in a usable, meaningful and accessible format. How can we do that? When we covered reliable operations and repair/maintenance, managing the instrument hardware was addressed earlier. Regarding the software on the computer side of things, there are two methods available to us: virtualization and using a LIMS. There are several functions that the instrument-computer-software combination has to carry out, including instrument control, data acquisition, data storage, analysis, reporting, and exporting data files and results.

LIMS provides a suitable means of keeping track of samples and test results. Data files exported from an instrument’s computer may be stored in folders referenced through the LIMS, so regardless of what happens to the instrument-computer combination, the work results are preserved and readily available for the analyst’s use in case the device is retired or replaced. Instrument-to-LIMS functionality is a common attribute of products like ELab LIMS and the LabVia product set.

If we want access to the control/acquisition/analysis capability, we need an additional tool, and that tool is virtualization. A virtualized computer is a copy of everything that runs on a computer except the firmware. That copy is put into a “container,” essentially a data file that can be executed by the virtualization software and be accessed and worked with as if it were sitting on the original hardware. You have access to the operating system, file structure, and the components needed to carry out your work aside from direct connections to the instrument. Instrument control may be possible depending on the nature of the instrument, its connection to the computer, and its command-and-control structure.  Real-time data acquisition with carefully controlled sampling intervals would not be feasible with virtualization software due to the built-in multi-user capabilities; virtualization systems act as time-sharing systems between users and you may not have precise control over access to the processor.

In closing …

Product replacement is continually happening, whether it affects our personal lives or our work. Planning for that retirement is part of laboratory management, and several options are open to us. One key element is preserving data and information and their chain of custody. That is a role that ELab LIMS can assist with.

Effective planning for product life cycles and the use of informatics tools can keep valuable data available for use and protect your lab’s budget from unexpected expenditures.



[1] See “Fax Machines Are Still Everywhere, and Wildly Insecure” at https://www.wired.com/story/fax-machine-vulnerabilities/

[2]  See https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_600701 – seeing the tools you worked with professionally displayed as museum pieces is always fun.

[3] Windows is a trademark of Microsoft Corporation

[4] See https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/automotive-and-assembly/our-insights/the-case-for-an-end-to-end-automotive-software-platform

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