A sensible observation on Passwords

Finally some common sense on Passwords:

XKCD on passwords

So true, it isn’t funny.

This is why in PatentSafe we encourage the use of a phrase for signing documents. We can’t change organisation’s password policies (and most large companies use LDAP anyhow) but we can try to enforce sanity in signing pass phrases.

Maybe we needed short but hard to guess passwords years ago when memory was tight and CPUs weren’t able to chew through all possible combinations as fast as they do today. Nowadays having a 255 character string for a password shouldn’t be a problem – and it needs to be long to slow down brute-force attacks.

(there’s clearly features in PatentSafe to detect and/or defend against brute-force attacks but the first line of security should be sensible passwords).

ELNs and the post-PC era

Almost all “Electronic Laboratory Notebook” vendors assume you are deploying onto reasonably-recent Windows PCs, which might be the case if you are focusing on Big Pharma (which most vendors were) but isn’t true when you start working with Academic Labs and Biotechs.

As a general rule Apple MacOS X, Linux are second class citizens in the ELN world and it is all the salesperson can do to stifle a laugh when you mention those “other platforms”. The iPad and Android equivalents don’t even get a look in!

I’ve felt this situation is increasingly unsustainable – not only is Apple’s Macintosh experiencing a resurgence, but we’re quite possibly on the cusp of a tablet-drive revolution.

An interesting blog post from the CTO at the UK’s Department for Work and Pensions wonders if their current Windows desktop refresh might not be their last.

Personally, I think it likely this is the last version of Windows anyone ever widely deploys, though.

The reason? I think they’ll be fewer workloads that actually require a heavy deskop stack. Today, of course, we have all this legacy that’s coupled to the desktop, but in a decade, I really doubt that will be the case. Most stuff will arrive via the browser.

Talking with our larger Enterprise customers, it appears their Windows Desktop infrastructure is increasingly cumbersome and it is very hard to innovate in such a complex environment. In the smaller Biotechs there’s a real push to avoid cumbersome IT generally and there’s ready adoption of web and Cloud technologies, as well as additional platforms such as Macs and iPads.

The article makes a good long term point which ELN project teams should urgently consider:

From a strategic point of view, if you’re designing the future technology estate of a large organisation, that last thing it makes sense to do in this kind of context is build stuff that depends on a desktop stack. Furthermore, decoupling legacy from the desktop stack also has to be on the agenda, because you just can’t count on that stack being relevent in 10 years time.

Most ELN products on the market are tightly linked into the Windows ecosystem, even to the extent that one vendor just trumpeted the re-launch of their ELN which is now completely based on SharePoint!

My feeling is that organisations looking for an ELN which is going to last for more than 2 years should consider a situation where there are more than just Windows Desktop PCs in their IT infrastructure – not an unreasonable consideration, but one that needs thinking about up front rather than purchasing a product that locks you in to a dying ecosystem. The Windows PC isn’t going to be replaced but it won’t be the only way you’ll want to access your ELN, and whatever you select needs to be able to work with whatever you might adopt. That such lightweight “thin” solutions are easier to deploy than a thick client just icing on the cake.

(update: this story has been picked up in The Register)

Chemistry ELNs and Open Source

For some scientists, Chemical Structure-based searching is an important part of the toolset they use to plan and write up their experiments. Historically this functionality has been the domain of proprietary software vendors, who have used their monopoly on Cheminformatics technology to lever the adoption of their wider informatics suites (including products positioned as “Electronic Laboratory Notebooks”).

The resulting lack of competition on top of vendor consolidation has led to Chemistry-focused ELNs tending to lag in terms of ease of use, and openness, whilst of course being pretty expensive. As those vendors seek to expand into other scientific disciplines, they bring with them the same costs which are then unnecessarily imposed onto other areas.

One major reason for this is that the Open Source Cheminformatics world has historically been under-developed. My theory is that’s because Cheminformatics started in earnest before Open Source took off as a concept (in comparison to Bioinformatics) but I have no real evidence for this.

Open Source is an important part of todays’ software ecosystem:

  • It provides a set of building blocks, and I would imagine almost every software product (commercial or otherwise) has some Open Source components. By sharing the basic foundations, the cost of entry is reduced and this results in more entrants and lower costs for everyone.
  • Open Source drives innovation by allowing people to re-mix things to “scratch their own itch” and produce new approaches as needed. Even if those solutions remain in-house they still inspire others, and perhaps allow the engineers inside the commercial vendors to successfully propose new approaches.
  • The threat of “free” competition as well as more players in the market generally keeps vendors on their toes. Without a complete lock on particular functionality, vendors must instead compete on value and functionality.

Amphora are not in the Chemistry ELN market (and have no intention of being in that market), but I look at what’s out there and compare with what I see happening in other areas and it is clear there’s a lot that could be done which would benefit the wider ELN world as well. Frankly what’s going on Chemistry is giving the wider ELN community a bad name – especially as marketers keep positioning their products as the only “proper” approach for any kind of science, chemistry or otherwise. You really don’t need to spend thousands of dollars a seat and days/weeks of implementation time to deploy an ELN!

So I’ve waiting for a decent Open Source approach to Chemistry-based searching because if nothing else it will inject some innovation where it has been sorely lacking.

So I was delighted to read this post on how to Enable Exact Structure Search and Substructure Search for Your Chemical Database. I don’t think there’s a great breakthrough here, but it is a straightforward set of instructions on how you can do it which demystifies Cheminformatics a lot.

This could get pretty interesting in the next few years…

  • HTML5 and other web technologies are surely at the stage where we don’t need a “thick client” deployed onto a desktop anymore – can’t we do it all in the browser?
  • What about all the tablets (like the iPad), can we make them full clients?
  • Can we finally have true cross platform chemistry ELNs?
  • Can we easily embed chemistry into a variety of other applications, rather than having to buy a complete implementation of someone else’s idea of an ELN?

Amphora’s focus will remain on our particular slice of the ELN problem, which is providing the secure recordkeeping back end, discipline-neutral collaboration etc. Once you’ve done all that work the lawyers generally want to make sure you get the credit for all that Intellectual Property you’ve created even if they don’t explicitly apply for a Patent – even in Academic environments this is becoming more important as the journals and funding agencies raise their expectations in terms of record keeping etc. Amphora’s job is to help our customers focus on the science, and we’ll look after the Intellectual Property and Records considerations.

Even though we don’t plan to directly participate, I’m really looking forward to this. It is great fun working with our customers’ in-house Bioinformatics solutions, and I’d love to see that level of innovation in Cheminformatics.

Flexibility and power

Brent Simmons draws out the difference between Flexibility Vs Power in software:

Flexibility is the ability to change how software works; power is the ability to do more with less effort

Historically we have been sucked into believing that “Flexibility = Power” and the complexity of most ELNs shows the result. As Brent mentions, iOS and the like are causing us to understand that the benefits come from Power – that’s how we deliver the return on investment. Flexibility can distract from that.

I suspect in the future we’ll see a lot more focused, powerful systems which allow us to concentrate on the job in hand rather than having to figure out how to configure all the flexibility we thought we wanted.

When you add a new App to your iPad/iPhone you are generally up and running within seconds. Imagine if that was the user experience for ELNs…

ELNs in the Laboratory – iPad Vs Ruggedised Tablet

The Electronic Lab Notebook’s last frontier for the is the laboratory bench, and historically companies have explored a variety of solutions although I don’t think anyone would claim to have the perfect solution yet.

Comparing a recent ruggedised tablet with an iPad shows why the iPad is so interesting for accessing an ELN from the benchtop.

The latest PC Pro magazine has a review of the Motion Computing J3500 which is a ruggedised PC with a touch screen which I guess would be one of the devices you might consider if you wanted a PC in the lab. At £2,253 (ex VAT) it isn’t cheap, battery life is just over 4 hours, and it is going to take a lot of bench space.

Compare that to an iPad which is £365 (ex VAT), a battery that will last most if not all of the day, much more portable, doesn’t take up nearly as much space on the benchtop and can be placed in a protective plastic bag if desired.

The difference in price, form factor and battery life is stark, and I suspect the iPad will be a lot cheaper to manage from an IT perspective. Given the move to web-based systems I can’t see there’s much the iPad is missing in terms of functionality either.

And that is why we’re excited about the iPad…. and it is too small to be used as a tray which is a concern with Tablet PCs!