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How to evaluate the electronic lab notebook eCAT in 6 easy steps

Posted by Rory on November 22nd, 2010 @ 11:08 am

Over on the Electronic lab notebook blog I’ve just written a general post on how to evaluate software, with a particular focus on electronic lab notebooks.  In this post I’m going to guide you through the process of evaluating eCAT.

Step 1:  Poke around the Axiope website

Spend some time on the Axiope website.  You can learn a lot from the website about both eCAT and Axiope.  We try to be as transparent as possible — the website explains how much eCAT costs,  that there is a  free Personal version, and what the differences between the Personal version and the two group versions — Install and Team Hosted — are.  The website goes through what eCAT does — with videos and text that focus on the practicalities of setting up and using the software.  In addition, you can get a perspective on how other people are using it, and what they like about it, from the Who uses eCAT section.  From all  this you should be able to get a decent feel for whether eCAT looks as if it will be able to solve your problem.

Step 2:  Decide which version of eCAT to try

There are three versions of eCAT.  The free Personal version is for individual use. It’s for individual scientists who want a better way of recording and organizing research data, and value the ability to put structure into the record they keep of their research.  The other two versions, Install and Team Hosted, are for labs.   The Install version is installed on your computers behind your firewall, and it has a big advantage — your files can be ‘mapped’ to eCAT so that eCAT can see them and and there is no need to upload files.  The Team Hosted version is hosted by Axiope.  You still get administratrive control, but you don’t have to worry about computers or backup, we take care of that.  It’s useful for labs that don’t have a computer system available to install eCAT on or aren’t confident about their IT support.

Step 3:  Sign up for a trial

Once you’ve decided which version you want, you can sign up for your free Personal account and/or for a free trial of the Team Hosted or Install versions.  Some people sign up for a Personal account and get a free trial of one of the group versions.   Signing up for a Personal account or a Team Hosted trial is very straightforward — after you register Axiope sends your login details, and you can login and get started.  The Install version works a bit differently.  After you register you are taken to instructions for downloading and installing eCAT.  But again, once eCAT has been installed, you are ready to begin testing.

Step 4:  Set up testing accounts

With both the Team Hosted and Install versions, at an early stage you will want to login as the admin user and use the administrative privileges the admin user has to set up accounts for others in your group who will be testing eCAT.  That’s descibed here for Install.  For Team Hosted, logged in as the admin user, you will need to set up attachment stores for the other user accounts you set up.   You need to first create the user’s account, then save their information, and then go back into the user and edit it again to create the attachment store.   Each user will need to set up a store folder to access their files with the attachment store that has been set up for them.  The instructions for that are here.  There is also a video on how to organize your lab with eCAT, which might be worth watching before you get started setting up user accounts.

Step 5:  Try it out!

If you are a Personal user, you will have skipped Step 4, and you can just  login and get your teeth into eCAT.  Individual testers of the Team Hosted and Install versions can do the same once the person acting as admin has set up their accounts.  There is also a Getting Started video that many people find useful.

As you put eCAT through its paces there are a couple of things to remember.  First, you need to keep the problem you are hoping eCAT will solve in the back of your mind and ask yourself periodically how good eCAT is at solving the problem.  But at the same time it’s a good idea to keep something of an open mind, because using  eCAT may put the problem in a  different perspective, or even bring you to the realization that you have a  different problem than you thought you did at the outset and/or that eCAT is really useful even though it only partially solves your original problem.

Second, how good is Axiope at explaining how to use eCAT?  Are the how to videos and video interviews with users informative?  How about the brief videos inside eCAT explaining how to do certain things and perform certain tasks?  And how about the User Guide? Is it easy to navigate?  To the point?

Step 6:  When in doubt, ask

As you go through the testing, there are bound to be some things you don’t understand and for which there does not appear to be a ready explanation in the User Guide, the website, or the videos embedded in eCAT.  When this happens, don’t hesitate to ask  us by sending an email to support@axiope.com   And judge us by our response.  How long does it take us to respond?  Is our answer responsive to your question?  Is it honest?  Helpful?

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How to install and run lab software in a university environment

Posted by Rory on November 1st, 2010 @ 10:15 am

Managed IT environments

If you’re working in a university the odds are you’re in a ‘managed’ IT environment.  In other words, the computer your university supplies you with is controlled by an administrator.  That matters if you want todownload web-based  software for you or your lab to test.  It matters because you may not be able to download a test version of the software without assistance from your administrator, and once you  have downloaded the software, you may not be able to let other members of the lab access the software without administrative privileges, which you probably do not have.  This post looks at how to work within these constraints and find ways for you and other members of the lab to access software you want to test.

Servers

If you want to just test the software yourself, then you can download it onto your own computer — no need to deal with the managed computer system of your group or institution.  But if the software is going to be used by others, and you want them to be able to test it as well, you need to install the trial version of the software on a machine they can all access as a group.  To enable that you install one copy of the software on a single’ server’ machine and then use web browsers to connect to the software.

A server is normally a machine in your lab  dedicated to running services – always turned on and always connected to the lab network. The machine needs to be connected to the lab network and to allow connections to be made to it across your lab network. If you wish to be able to access the software remotely, then the server also needs to allow connections externally, which may require some configuration of your firewall. If you don’t know what the firewall allows, you may need to speak to your IT people.

Administrative privileges

Because web-based software systems are server applications that must be running 24/7,they require administrative priviliges for both the user installing the software and the user running the software. If you do not have administrative permission on your lab’s server, you will need to speak to IT to get the software installed and to run the software. Note that if you shut down the software you will need administrative privileges to start it again.

What to remember

So the key things to remember if you are testing software that various members of a group need to access as a group are:

  1. The software needs to be installed on a server.
  2. Administrative privileges are needed for both the person installing the software and the person running the software.
  3. It’s probably a good idea to speak with your IT people before you get started.

Installing eCAT

These points apply to eCAT, and are explained step by step during the eCAT trial install process.   There  is a more detailed explanation with additional background in the Support section of the Axiope website.