Introduction to LabKey Server

This topic is for absolute beginners to LabKey Server. It explains what LabKey Server is for, how it works, and how to build solutions using its many features.

What is LabKey Server?

LabKey Server's features can be grouped into three main areas:

1. Data Repository

LabKey Server lets you bring data together from multiple sources into one repository. These sources can be physically separated in different systems, such as data in Excel spreadsheets, different databases, FreezerPro, REDCap, etc. Or the data sources can be separated "morphologically", having different shapes. For example, patient questionnaires, instrument-derived assay data, medical histories, and sample inventories all have different data shapes, with different columns names and different data types. LabKey Server can bring all of this data together to form one integrated whole that you can browse and analyze together.

2. Data Showcase

LabKey Server lets you securely present and highlight data over the web. You can present different profiles of your data to different audiences. One profile can be shown to the general public with no restrictions, while another profile can be privately shared with selected individual colleagues. LabKey Server lets you collaborate with geographically separated teams, or with your own internal team members. In short, LabKey Server lets you create different relationships between data and audiences, where some data is for general viewing, other data is for peer review, and yet other data is for group editing and development.

3. Electronic Laboratory

LabKey Server provides many options for analyzing and inquiring into data. Like a physical lab that inquires into materials and natural systems, LabKey Server makes data itself the object of inquiry. This side of LabKey Server helps you craft reports and visualizations, confirm hypotheses, and generally provide new insights into your data, insights that wouldn't be possible when the data is separated in different systems and invisible to other collaborators.

The LabKey Server Platform

LabKey Server is a software platform, as opposed to an application. Applications have fixed use cases targeted on a relatively narrow set of problems. As a platform, LabKey Server is different: it has no fixed use cases, instead it provides a broad range of tools that you configure to build your own solutions. In this respect, LabKey Server is more like a car parts warehouse and not like any particular car. Building solutions with LabKey Server is like building new cars using the car parts provided. To build new solutions you assemble and connect different panels and analytic tools to create data dashboards and workflows.

The following illustration shows how LabKey Server takes in different varieties of data, transforms into reports and insights, and presents them to different audiences.

How Does LabKey Server Work?

LabKey Server is a web server, and all web servers are request-response machines: they take in requests over the web (typically as URLs through a web browser) and then craft responses which are displayed to the user.


Modules are the main functionaries in the server. Modules interpret requests, craft responses, contain all of the web parts, and application logic. The responses can take many different forms:

  • a web page in a browser
  • an interactive grid of data
  • a report or visualization of underlying data
  • a file download
  • a long-running calculation or algorithm
LabKey Server uses a database as its main data store. There is always a main database, either PostgeSQL or MS SQL Server, and you can attach any number of other databases to the server. The following databases are supported:
  • PostgreSQL
  • MS SQL Server
  • Oracle
  • My SQL
  • SAS
LabKey Server offers non-disruptive integration with your existing systems and workflows. You can keep your existing data systems in place, using LabKey Server to augment them, or you can use LabKey Server to replace your existing systems. For example, if you already use FreezerPro to manage your sample data, REDCap to collect patient data, and SAS to hold medical histories, LabKey Server can synchronize and combine the data in these systems, so you can build a more complete picture of your research results, without disrupting the workflows you have already built.

The illustration below shows the relationships between web browsers, LabKey Server, and the underlying databases. The modules shown are not a complete set; many other modules are included in LabKey Server.

User Interface

You configure your own user interface by adding panels, aka "web parts", each with a specific purpose in mind. Some example web parts:

  • The Wiki web part displays text and images to explain your research goals and provide context for your audience. (The topic you are reading right now is displayed in a Wiki web part.)
  • The Files web part provides an area to upload, download, and share files will colleagues.
  • The Query web part displays interactive grids of data.
  • The Report web part displays the results of an R or JS based visualization.
Group web parts on separate tabs to form data dashboards.

The illustration below shows a data dashboard formed from tabs and web parts.

Folders and Projects

Folders are the "blank canvases" of LabKey Server, the workspaces where you organize dashboards and web parts. Folders are also important in terms of securing your data, since you grant access to audience members on a folder-by-folder basis. Projects are top level folders: they function like folders, but have a wider scope. Projects also form the center of configuration inside the server, since any setting made inside a project cascades into the sub-folders by default.


LabKey uses "role-based" security to control who has access to data. You assign roles, or "powers", to each user who visits your server. Their role determines how much they can see and do with the data. The available roles include: Administrator (they can see and do everything), Editors, Readers, Submitters, and others. Security is very flexible in LabKey Server. Any security configuration you can imagine can be realized: whether you want only a few select individual to see your data, or if you want the whole world to see your data.

The server also has extensive audit logs built. The audit logs record:

  • Who has logged in and when
  • Changes to a data record
  • Queries performed against the database
  • Server configuration changes
  • File upload and dowload events
  • And many other activities

The Basic Workflow: From Data Import to Reports

To build solutions with LabKey Server, follow this basic workflow: import or synchronize your data, apply analysis tools and build reports on top of the data, and finally share your results with different audiences. Along the way you will add different web parts and modules as needed. To learn the basic steps, start with the tutorials, which provide step-by-step instructions for using the basic building blocks available in the server.

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