Analytic lab firm boosts query response through database upgrade

Maxxam Analytics had a problem, and it didn’t take DNA testing or matching fingerprints to know what it was. Its Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) wasn’t responding fast enough to large queries.

Maxxam, based in Mississauga, Ont., is one of the largest privately-owned analytic laboratories in North America. With 15 locations and around 1,200 employees, the company does forensic DNA testing for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and other law-enforcement organizations, DNA paternity testing, and assorted other analytical work such as water-quality analysis and food-safety tests.

Maxxam’s MaxxLIMS system holds large amounts of data about the tests the company conducts for its clients. “It’s essentially the heart of our organization,” said Jason Goldring, network and messaging administrator at Maxxam. MaxxLIMS generates reports for clients, and through an online tool called MaxxLink, clients can get access to their data from any browser-equipped PC, Goldring explained.

Sometimes the volume of data involved is sizeable, and that’s where problems arose with the systems, originally implemented using older versions of Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server database software. Customers were telling Maxxam that any query that had to return a large volume of data “would take longer than they would normally expect,” Goldring said.

The solution appeared to be to upgrade to a newer version of the software. Maxxam moved to SQL Server 2005, the latest release of the database system.

“It seems to be a much cleaner, tighter version, which is giving us far fewer problems,” Goldring said. “Online performance was one of the main things.”

Maxxam also liked the fact that the new database release could run on its existing hardware without requiring costly upgrades, he said. Installation has been smooth; there are always little technological glitches with any upgrade, Goldring says, but the upgrade has been completed and there are no outstanding issues.

Maxxam also completed last year a move to Microsoft’s Exchange Server 2003 as its company-wide e-mail and collaboration platform. Through several acquisitions, the parent company, which had been running IBM’s Lotus Notes, had acquired a mixture of e-mail software including older Exchange 5.5 servers and Novell Inc.’s Groupwise.

Goldring said Maxxam had had some problems with Notes and felt that as Microsoft has become the dominant e-mail and collaboration software provider — and since Maxxam uses mainly Microsoft software — it would make sense to move to that platform. The big concern was the migration, he said. Since he worked at an acquired company that had been running Exchange all along, Goldring was heavily involved in helping Maxxam convert.

One of the biggest issues in the switchover was converting older data to Exchange format, Goldring said. Maxxam simplified that problem somewhat by surveying all departments to determine how much of the existing data actually needed to be converted. The conclusion was that 35 to 40 per cent of the data did not need to be converted to the new format. Then Maxxam set up a timetable for completing the rest of the data conversion.

Security was another concern, which led to the involvement of CMS Consulting of Toronto. CMS helped Maxxam configure Exchange Server for maximum security, according to Brian Bourne, CMS president.

While Microsoft has greatly improved the security of Exchange Server, Bourne said, there is more customers can do to improve security. Many of the issues are matters of configuration. For instance, a common mistake is failing to use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) for Outlook Web access, Bourne says. Hardening the host operating system and using complex passwords are other examples of the precautions CMS recommends, he said.

“It took a little bit of time,” Goldring said, “but in the end it ended up working for us because a lot of people in the organization were already used to the Microsoft interface.”

Goldring also says Exchange Server 2003 gives Maxxam more latitude to customize forms, calendars and task lists.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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