Hospital, insurer ramp up use of IBM storage wares

The IT folks at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto admit they were lucky when a gigantic blackout hit much of eastern North America last summer.

The health care facility was in the process of moving the data housed in one downtown data centre to another one, also in the city’s central core. The laborious process was only three weeks from completion when the lights went out. The receiving data centre stayed lit, while the location from which the information was being moved was left in the dark.

“Fortunately, most of our critical systems had been moved over to the primary data centre, so almost all of [our] patient-related stuff was (running) continuously over the blackout,” said Kenneth Westerback, technology architect, corporate resources for the hospital. The day was not saved, Westerback added, by any cutting-edge technological safety net, such as data mirroring from one site to the other.

“We just happened to have everything in a data centre that stayed up. There was a little bit of luck there.”

At the time of the blackout, the hospital had embarked upon a sweeping project, which it calls “Gemini”, that is aiming to turn the organization into a data-driven entity. If all goes according to plan, when the three-year process is complete, and in many instances before that time, luck will have nothing to do with the resiliency of the institution’s IT infrastructure.

Westerback’s comments came at an IBM storage briefing at the firm’s offices here last month. It was an opportunity for Big Blue to talk about its On Demand computing framework, release a few products and let customers discuss some of the ways in which they’re using IBM’s storage products.

St. Michael’s has deployed the IBM TotalStorage Enterprise Storage Server for real-time access to data and the TotalStorage FAStT Storage Server for mirroring and caching duties. The hospital is ramping up an initiative that allows doctors to view critical data, such as patients’ health records and X-rays in real time. The process is one of Westerback’s biggest sources of anxiety.

“We know it’s going to take a lot of storage and we’ve bought a lot of storage to accommodate that, but we’re sort of anxious as to whether we’ve bought enough,” he said. “[The users of the system] are continually moving forward in terms of how much data they really need per unit of work.”

To capitalize on such growing storage needs, IBM announced new tape and disk wares at the briefing. An entry-level disk storage system aimed at small and medium-sized businesses, the IBM TotalStorage FAStT100 Storage Server, was introduced. It is built for near-line storage needs and aims to deliver real-time access to data. The server can be divided into 16 partitions, which IBM says helps increase the utilization of storage space and reduce the cost of storage management.

IBM also announced enhancements to its tape portfolio, including a media technology known as Write Once Read Many (WORM) for the Model 3592 tape drive. It was accompanied by a 60GB short-length economy cartridge for the 3592 drive, designed to work with applications that call for quick retrieval response times.

IBM also announced that new models of the 3584 Tape Library would provide a 20 per cent reduction in library footprint over the generation that preceded it. It scales to 192 drives and more than 6,000 cartridge slots in each library.

The announcements were further cogs in IBM’s On-Demand wheel. An overarching philosophy encompassing an enterprise’s entire IT infrastructure, it aims to describe an integration of business processes, both internal and external, that at the end of the day leaves an IBM user with enough flexibility to respond to its customers demands — hence the moniker.

“You can’t go out and buy On Demand,” said Rich Lechner, vice-president, Storage for IBM at the briefing. “You have to implement the infrastructure…. Getting there involves the simplification of the underlying IT infrastructure, assuring business continuity and managing information over its lifecycle.”

Lechner later added that one of the primary reasons why he believes IBM is the best vendor of choice to get customers to an On Demand environment is the breadth of its capabilities.

“We’re a hardware, software and services vendor, and that sets up apart,” he said.

When St. Michael’s made the decision made 18 months ago to move towards the data-driven model, IBM’s services portfolio was a key element that tipped the scales toward the Armonk, N.Y.-headquartered company.

“It was a key differentiator,” said Westerback. “When we wanted to pick our strategic ally for our technology infrastructure, one (candidate) was IBM, one was HP/Compaq. They were very close. We wanted [our choice of vendor] to have leading-edge hardware, because we wanted to make a long-term commitment, and also the services.”

Another IBM storage user, Bob Venable, enterprise systems manager for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, commented that having ownership of the On Demand infrastructure has worked well for the health insurance provider.

“It’s a big up-front investment, but we distribute the cost — and it’s ours.”

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