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To improve hospital data storage, facilities fire up flash technology

As petabytes of data make hospital data storage a struggle for health systems, flash storage technology holds promise -- and in some cases, pulls ahead of the cloud.

As IT decision makers scout for technology that speeds up clinical workflows and drives cost savings into their hospital's business operations, many healthcare IT executives are increasingly turning to flash storage technology to improve the management and performance of large quantities of data.

Finding the right hospital data storage technology is critical not only because medical information is growing exponentially, but also because healthcare facilities are tasked with storing patient data under rules governed by HIPAA.

The quest to implement storage technology that physicians, nurses and other healthcare workers can rely on is critical to improving the delivery of care as clinical workers access everything from a patient's medical records to finding the latest research on a new drug in a timely manner.  

Increasingly, hospitals are finding that flash storage technology is advancing their data management goals, while changing the economic discussion around storage in the data center. This type of storage uses flash memory, known for providing quicker access to information while using less power. Compared to traditional storage drives, flash uses no moving parts.

Flash transition shows advantages over cloud

One health system that uses flash technology and has seen a marked improvement in the time it takes to process critical clinical data is Sharp Healthcare in San Diego. Sharp has approximately 6.5 petabytes (PB) of data and adds about 28 to 30 TB of data each year.

There are many advantages to using flash technology versus cloud computing in a hospital data storage environment, Steve Simpauco, Sharp's manager of database administration and technical services, said.

"Cloud computing has many benefits, as does having flash in our infrastructure," Simpauco said. "However, with flash, we can offer the performance for our very large database systems that could be challenging for cloud computing."

About 18 months ago, Sharp was forced to upgrade its storage systems because Hewlett Packard (now Hewlett Packard Enterprise) retired an earlier version of its EVA enterprise-level storage array. As a result, Sharp's storage team evaluated flash arrays from Dell, EMC, NetApp and IBM, and finally selected for their enterprise-mission-critical systems the IBM FlashSystem 900.

Health system makes a methodical flash migration

To get the most out of its flash technology, many of Sharp Healthcare's mission-critical applications have already been migrated to its IBM FlashSystem 900, including its EHR, business applications, revenue management systems, financial systems and interface software. The hospital system in San Diego also plans to move its data warehouse and master data management system to the flash system this year.

Tom O'Toole, a principal technical system administrator at Sharp, said migrating to the new flash system has been handled on an application-by-application basis. The hospital system has implemented a virtualized storage environment with IBM, which provided a seamless transition.

"Because the operating systems, be they Unix or Open VMS, have a host-based shadowing or mirroring solution that can make data available while removing the information from the old storage system to the new one, the migration was done without any impact to the end users," O'Toole said. 

Since implementing the new flash setup, Sharp has experienced the following key benefits:

  • Improvements in I/O communications between the hospital's information processing systems and other information systems. Boosting computer and operating latency is particularly important as Sharp increasingly connects its hospitals with regional medical facilities, affiliated physician offices and patients. According to hospital officials, the new IBM FlashSystem 900 is 20 times faster in I/O processing than its previous storage system.
  • Sharp reduced the number of racks of hardware from 15 to 2 1/2, which has resulted in greater power and cooling efficiencies in its storage setup.
  • There were no interruptions to Sharp's business operations and no periods of downtime or outages during the transition to flash storage.
  • Clinical, financial and other reports that usually took eight to 10 hours to complete now take five to 10 minutes.

Simpauco said that in the future, he envisions the hospital system embracing a hybrid infrastructure with a mix of cloud and local server and storage for applications used by 20 people or less.

Hospital data storage savings afoot

The deluge of digitized data from electronic health records (EHRs) and picture archiving and communication systems should be enough of a reason to convince health IT executives to turn to flash storage technology, Scott Sinclair, senior analyst at IT research firm Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass., said.

"If there are healthcare organizations that are not using any flash storage in their environments, those IT decision makers are likely doing a disservice to their organizations," Sinclair said.

It's phenomenal to think about how much flash storage can fit into a small space while using the power of a toaster oven.
Scott Sinclairsenior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

Among the many benefits that healthcare organizations can reap by using flash, Sinclair is particularly impressed with the technology's ability to serve the concurrent needs of multiple applications while speeding data transmission. In such cases, hospitals can take advantage of flash as they exchange data not only across departments within their organization, but with external health facilities.

"If I'm pulling up an image and I need to share it with multiple doctors and move it from one office to another, if it comes up in one second versus 30 seconds and you do that a thousand times a day, that can be impactful not just in the time that it takes, but the fact that these healthcare workers need time to digest it, analyze it and make sure that they are doing the right thing," he said. "This is in addition to the need to serve the concurrent creation of those records."

Scott Sinclair, Enterprise Strategy Group, comments on hospital data storageScott Sinclair

Adding that because new advances in flash density have made it possible to host a petabyte or more of data into equipment that is only a foot or two tall, Sinclair said flash enables IT executives to have a different discussion that goes beyond data processing performance.

"It's phenomenal to think about how much flash storage can fit into a small space while using the power of a toaster oven," Sinclair said. "There's an opportunity cost that arises with data center design decisions. The space, power and cooling savings provided by flash can help healthcare organizations change their financial model, allowing resources to be allocated to more profitable and lifesaving activities."

Hospital digs deeper into flash costs

Another hospital using flash technology to improve performance and reduce costs is Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The hospital uses and stores 3 PB of data and sees an annual data growth rate from 25% to 100%, depending on the type of data being generated.

Flash changes the game as far as meeting our performance needs over spinning disk because it can handle a higher rate of I/O workload.
Michael Passemanager for enterprise storage, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Beth Israel uses VMware technology for its virtualized data center. The hospital is evaluating all-flash-array technologies to enhance the performance of working with high-end Oracle databases and Microsoft's SQL.

"Flash changes the game as far as meeting our performance needs over spinning disk because it can handle a higher rate of I/O workload," Michael Passe, Beth Israel's IS manager for enterprise storage, said.

Passe noted that flash allows Beth Israel to easily pull data from SQL or Oracle transactional systems into a VMware environment. Furthermore, flash arrays come with data encryption, deduplication and compression features built into the system, which reduces the physical footprint of the data, improves performance and justifies the cost differences between spinning disk and flash.

"Spinning disk is $1 a gig versus raw flash, which is about $4 or $5 a gig, but when you compress and duplicate that data, it probably brings flash costs down to maybe one and a half or two instead of four or five times the cost of spinning disk," Passe said.

Next Steps

Hospital CIO explains the consequences inefficient data storage

Disaster recovery plays a huge role in healthcare storage plans

Hospital storage affects virtual application performance

This was last published in June 2016

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