Should I Choose a WordPress ELN?

There are numerous considerations in deciding on an Electronic Lab Notebook for your lab. Some of these considerations are described below in terms of how they would affect your choice of using a WordPress ELN. The comments are based on our limited experience with WordPress and are mostly qualitative based on an extrapolation of our experience rather than any specific quantitative tests that we have done concerning WordPress limits.

Data Set Size

How much data your ELN can handle is dependent on both the hardware and software. You have numerous hardware options. Possibilities include small or medium packages from a hosting vendor, a PC in your lab, dedicated servers in your organization, or dedicated servers from cloud hosting providers. This provides a wide choice of options for RAM and disk space, with of course cost usually reflecting the extent of the resources that you use.

WordPress should scale fairly well according to the hardware resources that it has available if it is well-tuned. So far, on a virtual machine in the Azure cloud with 8 GB RAM and a few hundred gigabyte of disk space, we have gathered just under 2000 data points. Each of our data points is built from a form that has about 30 fields that could be utilized. Some of these fields were as simple as a checkbox and some allowed up to 8 images of 256 MB each. So far, our response time for most pages is less than 3 seconds. The exception is a map that displays all of our data points, which takes about 8 seconds to load. Of course, the responsiveness can be tuned by caching (which we have). The more plugins that are used then the more there are potential problems for the site being slower. We utilize about 30 plugins on our site.

Common sense would preclude using WordPress for labs where gigabytes of data are routinely collected. WordPress would seem to be most appropriate for data sets that are primarily input through forms in a manual way, or at least if the feed of data to WordPress was automated then the speed of data collection should be reasonable.

Plugin Costs

Overall, WordPress should be one of the most inexpensive options that you have since the core is free and open source. With judicious selection of free plugins you should be able to accommodate many different types of experiments. If you need the capabilities of professional plugins then they are still usually relatively inexpensive.

As an example, for our ESRM ELN, we utilize the following plugins.

These plugins could certainly be optimized further so that several plugins could be removed. But the above scenario might provide a general idea of the cost of plugins for a functional research project that accommodates several hundred different student researchers every year. We spent about $1500 to set up the site and then we have about $800 per year of ongoing costs. The main yearly costs are $200 for LearnDash, $300 for WP Remote, and $150 for wpDataTables. There are reasonable alternatives to those packages and we may investigate those in the future if we need to further bring down costs.

Hosting Costs

Hosting costs involve paying primarily for the server for your ELN. If you use one of the numerous shared hosting providers, then your costs can be as low as a few dollars per month if you sign up for a 3 year term. However, for improved reliability it is better to upgrade to a managed server that may run in the $20-$40 per month range. These also usually take care of daily backups so that would eliminate the need that we had for the WPRemote plugin. In our case we had some custom development and experimentation that we wanted to do. So, we utilized a dedicated server with a second server for development. Each of these cost in the range of $30 to $60 per server which we managed ourselves. You can also utilize a PC in your lab to minimize your costs if you have one available and can provide the appropriate networking.

Cost Summaries

Given these admittedly imprecise estimates and depending on your exact needs, for a capable system that handles hundreds of researchers per year, an average cost estimate might range from $1000 to $1500 per year. There may also be some one time costs for some plugins when you get started. This scenario for hundreds of researchers compares quite favorably from a cost standpoint to all professional ELNs from what we can tell, ranging from at least 2-3 times improvement up through several orders of magnitude.

The more people that are using a WordPress ELN then the more cost-effective it becomes. Concurrently, the fewer people that use a WordPress ELN, then the more expensive it becomes per person. In cases of researchers numbering in the low dozens for the scenario described above, then it would seem more economical to utilize a different professional solution. However, this decision might be mitigated by being more frugal about plugins and hosting costs. Also, it could be that one of the many unique benefits of a WordPress ELN might take precedence in the decision for an ELN (e.g. easy cloning of the ELN, long term sustainability, in-house expertise, data security, geolocation, or other benefits described on our home page).

Alternatively, an even less expensive alternative would be to use the open source eLabFTW package. This package seems to be the easiest to work with of any of the other open source ELNs and is fairly easy to use and setup. However, eLabFTW does provide fewer of the S.A.F.E. attributes or other benefits provided by a WordPress ELN.