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A look at packaged microcomputer systems.

A look at packaged microcomputer systems

An increasingly common laboratory information approach distributes functions to microcomputers and networks them into either a minicomputer or a microcomputer file server with a significant amount of disk storage.1 Last month's Computer Dialog described a number of recent developments that have made microcomputers more versatile.2 Now we will look at complete microcomputer-based laboratory systems --generally networks-- ready for installation.

Figure I lists some firms marketing such products. Their systems are usually flexible enough to meet user specifications, and they often accept software already in use in the lab. Here's a close look at each system:

Barrett Laboratories. This firm's entry is designed to use the IBM PC. It has a PC DOS 3.1 operating system, the best software available in terms of network sharing features--sharing of parts of files on a hard disk drive and sharing of peripheral equipment, for example. The Novell networking hardware provides transmission speed of 70,000 characters per second, a rate made possible by the 32-bit Motorola microprocessor chip.

Generally, an eight-station network package will meet the demands of most large laboratories, but the network can be expanded to 24 microcomputers if necessary. The system supports up to eight hard disks, for a total storage capacity of 3 million kilobytes, and a printing speed of eight pages per minute. Each work station can simultaneously process data from two on-line laboratory instruments.

The programming languages for the application software include BASIC, C, and assembler. A rich variety of software is available for all areas of the lab, including anatomic pathology, microbiology, and the blood bank, and for management and accounting use. Employee scheduling and inventory control are among the management programs.

Citation Computer Systems. Full IBM PC compatibility is featured here. A star, or point-to-point, network topology connects as many as 16 Televideo microcomputers to a more powerful central microcomputer--a file server--which gives them multi-tasking capabilities and shared access to peripherals (Figure II). A hospital information system interface is also available.

The Citation system provides all the patient and administrative reporting features required by the clinical laboratory. It is currently suitable for a 200- to 300-bed hospital laboratory or an independent lab. Each of its work stations has an Intel 8088 microprocessor chip and 256 kilobytes of memory; use of the 80286 chip would provide enhanced capability.

In an effort to have the file server access data more rapidly-- which would enable it to support a larger lab--the system employs a dual 80186/Z80 chip combination, along with 512K of memory. Citation's InfoShare operating system software manages the file server as well as communication between it and all peripherals. It also allows DOS-compatible software, such as word processing programs and electronic spread-sheets, to be accessed concurrently by many users.

Data concentrators, each with a dedicated Z80 microprocessor and 64 kilobytes of memory, are available for interfacing with lab instruments. These devices hold instrument data until microcomputers in the network are ready to receive the information.

Figure III shows a more detailed configuration of a Citation system. It can be readily expanded over time, thus spreading costs. That's one of the advantages of a microcomputer-based system.3

Clovis Laboratory Software. The Company's new MS-DOS-based LAN system uses the IBM PC AT with 80286 chip for one station and the network server. Each work station has an 8088 user board with 256K to 1M random access memory. As part of its LAN/MS-DOS project, Clovis also added these capabilities to its software: 1) a report generator (with windowing) allowing user-generated custom reports and forms; 2) a host interface module for quick interfacing with a hospital mainframe system; and 3) a communication software and protocol subsystem.

Clovis's Hummingbird lab system for small to medium-size hospitals runs on a stand-alone IBM PC or PC XT, using P-system operating software or MS-DOS. Up to eight instruments may be attached serially to a single PC.

The application software, written in the Pascal programming language, generally supports most clinical laboratory functions, including cumulative summary and real-time quality control monitoring of on-line instruments.

DynaMedix. Till now, DynaMedix's products have been sold only by other manufacturers, under their own brand names. The company should complete a changeover to direct marketing by mid-1986.

A single-user system from DynaMedix, running on an IBM PC XT or PC AT, can be used as a complete laboratory system for hospitals with up to 200 beds. It also can be placed in larger institutions as a work station for several instruments to pass data on to a minicomputer-based lab system. Another DynaMedix system--a network of IBM PCs, PC XTs, and PC ATs--can support labs in institutions with up to 1,000 beds.

The microcomputers are configured with 640K of main memory. The XTs also come equipped with a 10-megabyte hard disk, while the ATs have 30-megabyte disks. Large main memory is important. The application programs are quite extensive and DynaMedix tries to keep as much of the program as possible resident in the main memory so that it doesn't have to be loaded too frequently from a disk drive.

The single-user system has DOS 2.1 operating software, but all of the programs on the system are compatible with industry network standards. The high-performance network, which also uses DOS 2.1 operating software, allows for very rapid data transmission. That's vital, for if a microcomputer-based system doesn't perform fast enough, it may actually hinder productivity in the laboratory. The network system uses distributive disk storage yet provides the capability for delta checking and printing of cumulative summaries.

C programming language-- which generates concise instructions --was used to develop the application software, including programs for chemistry, hematology, urinalysis, and microbiology. In addition, DynaMedix was poised at this writing to introduce a blood bank program. It also has data reduction software that can be used for radioimmunoassays.

The company uses accounting software that is generally available in the marketplace. But in the management area, it offers its own CAP workload recording package, and it is pushing to develop a DRG analysis program.

Users can reformat data input screens and output reports. They have substantial flexibility in modifying the configuration of tables that are used by the DynaMedix programs, especially with regard to quality control, test profiles, and calculations.

A hospital system interface will accept requisition entry from nursing stations and return results by transmitting them to the mainframe system. Another feature is background data acquisition from up to four automated analyzers per microcomputer while main system functions are performed in foreground mode.

PClab. The system marketed by PClab is designed to serve the entire laboratory and to complement a hospital information system. The work stations are standard IBM PCs. As many as 200 of them may be interconnected through Orchid Technology's PCnet local area network, which uses standard coaxial cable, T-shaped connectors, and a bus-type topology that lets a microcomputer "climb aboard' and receive a particular transmission.4

A collision detection access protocol makes sure transmissions are not

interrupted by new signals sent from other stations in the network; the new signals are backed up and retransmitted later. There's also file and record locking capability (while one user works on a file or record, no one else can).

The PClab system does not require a dedicated PC XT or AT as a network server, but an XT is used as an interface to the hospital information system. Each PC on the network is individually addressable, which facilitates communication between work stations. For data acquisition, the system can be interfaced to a wide variety of laboratory instruments, each microcomputer serving up to four instruments.

The application software for the individual microcomputers is written in IBM macro assembler language (which makes for faster running speed) and operates under the DOS 2.1 operating system. Some of the software, such as anatomic pathology and quality control programs, comes from other vendors. PClab is developing its own laboratory management system package, which will provide cumulative reporting capability.

Video screens in the PClab system can be divided into five areas (or windows) for multiple function displays. An instrument window shows which interfaced analyzers are active and what their operating status is. A date and time window reports when an instrument started operating. In another window, an audit trail can disclose what functions were performed on an instrument as data came in from it. Test results may be checked and edited on a viewing window while they are being transmitted from the instrument. Finally, a command window can be used to issue instructions-- telling the microcomputer to start acquiring instrument data, for example --and to send or receive messages.

Microcomputer-based laboratory systems currently have two constraints: 1) the speed with which centralized disk input and output can be accomplished through a network, and 2) the number of work stations that can be supported efficiently by the network. One way to overcome these limitations, and thereby set up a network in a larger hospital, is to replace the file-server microcomputer with a minicomputer (Figure IV). A fault-tolerant nonstop computer system, such as those marketed by Tandem and Stratus, may be the most reliable server in this regard.

Tandem recently began marketing software that allows a microcomputer network to connect to its system.5 Although this design is more expensive than a network made up just of microcomputers, it surmounts the latter's speed and size constraints. At the same time, the user has all of the innovative software advantages available through microcomputers.

All of the designs we have discussed will be found increasingly in clinical laboratories over the next few years as we move into an era of increased computing power and more sophisticated software.

1. O'Desky, R.I. Is there a pathology department computer system apropos to your organization? Healthcare Computing and Communications 2: 56-59, July 1985.

2. Groves, W.E. Trends in microcomputer-based lab systems. MLO 18(2): 77-79, February 1986.

3. Mavros, G.S. Life before and after a laboratory computer system. Case study 2: Bayonet Point/Hudson Regional Medical Center. Clin. Lab. Products 14: 23-24, April 1985.

4. Cowart, R. Local area networks. As the market grows, standards and long-term solutions come into view. PC Week 2: 55-70, July 30, 1985.

5. Kramer, M. Tandem system will now include IBM PCs and LANs. PC Week 2: 11, July 2, 1985.

Table: Figure I Suppliers of microcomputer lab systems

Table: Figure II A star network topology

Table: Figure III Lab network with instrument, hospital interfaces

Table: Figure IV Tying a micro network into a minicomputer
COPYRIGHT 1986 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Groves, William E.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Mar 1, 1986
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