Nurturing a healthy storage strategy

Keeping stored data safe yet accessible without breaking the bank has become a key challenge for companies, particularly within the financial services and healthcare sectors. With the amount of information being stored growing exponentially every year, legislation mandating information be retained, plus users’ dependence on data to be always available, it is no wonder that storage recently ranked third highest of 26 IT priority categories in the 2003 Gartner & SoundView IT Spending Survey. Storage trailed only security and Web application integration concerns, according to the survey which confirmed that even with flat budgets, companies are investing in storage.

“Even if you decide to cut back on people and you decide to spend less on…your buildings and…travel, at the end of the day, as long as your lights are on, you’re still collecting more information,” says Michael Gallant, director of public relations for storage product vendor EMC in Hopkington, Mass.

There’s also a realization that focusing on storage is strategically prudent.

“What’s changed probably in the last decade is how corporate executives view the value of information and how they can use that information for competitive advantage,” Gallant continues. For example, financial institutions can leverage information to get new customers and then offer more convenience to drive higher customer loyalty and get a larger share of customers’ wallets.

“If you’re a bank and you’re not thinking of better ways to provide information to your customer, then you’re going to lose a competitive advantage,” he says.

That would certainly account for the growing interest in networking storage systems so information from different platforms can be shared by an enterprise-wide program such as CRM or ERP.

Sharing information across platforms

“Before storage was networked it was difficult to get that information shared between various platforms,” Gallant explains. “Often times your billing data and your storage of all the information on accounts are on different platforms. By setting up your storage in a network fashion, it is much easier to share it, manage it and protect it.”

Other arguments for networked storage such as that offered by EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Network Appliance, are that it consolidates servers and consolidates storage which in turn can boost productivity and improve application performance. Networked storage proponents say it also facilitates business continuity because a separate back up system need not be connected to each storage system.

Three years ago, probably less than two per cent of all the storage deployed was connected to a network, Gallant estimates, and today, maybe more than 30 per cent of all the storage deployed is in a networked storage environment. He predicts that by 2005, at least 70 per cent of the new storage systems will be installed on either a storage area network or a network attached storage environment. (See similar estimates from IDC in Interview feature.)

The shift by IT management to make their storage decision separate from their server decision revised that familiar purchasing intention ‘whoever I’m going to buy my server from, I’ll probably consider buying my storage from.’ Networked storage vendors that made their storage systems operate with any server vendor facilitated the shift. So, as companies’ applications grew larger and required more servers, instead of buying a separate storage system from each server vendor, they could scale up their storage system that was compatible with all their servers.

Bogged down in a storage mire

Rick Salcak, director of IT at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH), was one of those IT managers caught in the mire of a storage system for every server when he won the go-ahead for consolidating storage at this hospital in Barrie, Ont. In 1997, the facility had adopted a MEDITECH client/server solution supported by EMC CLARiiON storage. Within three years, the software was being squeezed by unforeseen population growth, advances in digital medical technology and increasingly complex information requirements for issues such as privacy and regulatory compliance.

In their sixth year of having a client/server environment, even before getting involved with the data associated with diagnostic imaging, RVH had a server farm of about 40 servers that ran their core applications. Another 40 servers dealt with background jobs like print jobs, but the problem was with the 40 file servers that dealt with core data applications such as financial and registering patients.

“Each one of those servers had its own disk storage array associated with it so basically I had 40 islands of storage,” Salcak recalls. “If one of those islands was needing additional space, I couldn’t borrow it from another island that had excess capacity. That’s just inherent in your traditional client/server technology where you have a disk array associated with a specific file server running a specific application or applications on that server. We were finding about every 18 months we would go through…these fork-lift upgrades which were just nuts.”

These upgrades involved taking down from the users the application on the server that was out of space, copying that information elsewhere, ripping out the disk drives, replacing them with newer, bigger ones, getting them set up, copying data back onto that disk array, then turning that application back on and giving it to the users – hours later.

In addition to the huge inconvenience to users while the storage upgrades were being done, it was costly. Salcak says they wouldn’t want to spend too much money on storage at today’s prices “when you know that a year down the road you’ll be paying a lot less for it.” So, they would balance meeting the current needs and just a bit more at current storage prices.

He reports that during the six years they went from 4GB disk drives to 9GB to 18GB to 36GB disk drives with these disruptive forklift upgrades.

Another problem was running out of space in the computer room from adding additional file servers and additional storage.

Huge storage needs and users’ expectations

However, it was perhaps the users’ high expectations for always-on access to data compounded by increased data volume from their picture archiving and communication system (PACS) that made the existing direct attached storage untenable.

Salcak is convinced that the enterprise storage infrastructure they implemented over two months in late summer 2001 was the only way they could meet high user expectations and data volume.

With the electronic medical record, the expectation is that information is going to be available online, Salcak stresses. “Is it a picture, a diagnostic image of a patient? Is it an actual lab result in some type of a table or depicted in a graph? Everybody’s expectations are that there’s this electronic medical record that’s going to evolve and needs to be available all the time, sub-second response, never down — and how do you accommodate that? From what I can see, you have to go with a high-end SAN to accommodate those expectations.”

The greatest success since implementation is the PACS solution, says Salcak. The storage portion to the application could have been a function of the imaging department, but the 14-member IT department manages it, archives it and ensures that when someone goes to access it, the data they seek comes up immediately on their monitor. It gave the IT department the volume or critical mass of applications to make a business case for moving to the EMC Symmetrix SAN system.

“If everybody dealt with something individually in our organization – if diagnostic imaging did their own thing, if we did our own thing with our traditional data, cardio-respiratory and birthing did their own thing – if everybody was separate, it couldn’t fly. But by pulling it all together, it’s made a very compelling case for us evolving our electronic medical records.”

Since RVH works with Siemens for its diagnostic imaging and MEDITECH for its clinical information, they narrowed down their search for a networked storage solution by checking on what storage vendors’ products these vendors’ products were certified to run.

RVH chose a dual fibre path EMC storage area network that consisted of a Symmetrix 8830. The software includes ESN Manager, TimeFinder, EMC ControlCenter Symmetrix Manager, and Resource View. This configuration supported MEDITECH software, and the PACS vendors who at the time were being evaluated by RVH.

RVH based their decision, says Salcak, on the return on investment and price performance, as well as the history and track record of the vendor. It was also important that the solution be scalable, considering the volume and growth to date at RVH. The hospital has this year almost 80,000 visits to emergency, nearly two million lab procedures, roughly 160,000 diagnostic imaging procedures, about 20,000 admissions and about 2,200 births. Although this facility is only six years old, it is being run at nearly 100 per cent occupancy, so there are plans to expand. Those plans include a cancer centre to open in 2006 and the current 297 beds to expand to 535 beds in 2008/2009 in response to the growth of the Barrie area. RVH also provides data centre services to five other hospitals in the region.

“It’s hard when you look at the life cycle of computer technology to have something that goes beyond five to seven years,” he says. “Certainly this technology, from what we can see, is going to take us well past that time frame. It is very scalable.

“We register just slightly over 1,000 patients a day every day, 365 days a year,” he continues. “We know one thing for sure: that when we look at expanding this kind of capacity on our overall size of our organization that it just means we’re going to be doing more; there are more expectations on the IT side and how do we accommodate all this growth in storage? We’ve deployed an enterprise storage infrastructure that can accommodate that kind of thing. No matter what you throw at it, it should accommodate it. Is it all in there today? No. It is scalable. The architecture as the foundation is there. Certainly we have to add more disk capacity but we don’t need to do that until we get to that point.”

Compatible, scalable and dependable

Salcak is confident that their storage system can accommodate a magnitude of different types of technologies and will not restrict their choice of operating system or server vendor. “As an example, we’re looking at some solutions for fetal heart monitoring. One of the things I’m dialoguing with the vendors is: can their solution reside on the SAN? I haven’t encountered any huge obstacles with exploring new technologies or different solutions that would, because of our infrastructure, limit us to only a few types of solutions as opposed to anyone that we wanted to pick.”

EMC PowerPath provides servers with redundant pathways to the images and delivers optimal load balancing. The time for the mirroring backup process for the MEDITECH application modules has been cut in half. Diagnostic and monitoring tools averted a potential disaster, alerting staff to an SQL database problem that was corrected instantly without any downtime.

The migration from traditional disk arrays to this SAN enabled them to recover about 30 per cent of computer room space. Salcak expects to be able to add storage to the infrastructure and not change the footprint for the next five to six years, considering advancements in technology and capacities of disk drives.

“The way the whole thing is configured, it’s basically like three refrigerators kind of strapped together. That’s going to accommodate a lot of storage for us for many many years to come,” he says.

As far as dependability goes, he doesn’t even touch wood when he says that they have not had any downtimes associated with hardware failure. “That’s the way it’s designed. It’s got all the redundancy built in. So if we have a disk drive that fails – and anything that is mechanical will break – the design is such that the system keeps going and there is no hiccough at all for our end users. Users are impacted by unavailability of applications only when we have to do software version upgrades – as opposed to fire fighting systems that are crashing.”

When talking only “hard dollars”, Salcak estimates that they are looking at a five- or six-year return on their multi-million dollar investment in the SAN system. He admits it is a long time but stresses that it is very difficult to assign a value to patient care and dealing with people’s expectations.

“Regarding pain management, if something can be done an hour sooner for the patient, is that important? Well, of course it is. But in the business world, how do you describe that in an ROI environment? When you look at the scope of what we’re trying to do – and we’re trying to do the best we can for our patients – then this just fits. It is a very integral part of delivering that.”