Is cloud storage right for your organization?
By Rob Carter, May 2012
Many healthcare organizations are looking to third-party vendors for help.
The growing adoption of electronic health record (EHR) systems, the continued accumulation of patient data and increased utilization of digital diagnostic imaging are causing healthcare networks to overload traditional data storage methods. HIPAA and EMR guidelines require that all data be kept on file, and healthcare providers must be able to store it securely but access it quickly. As a result, healthcare organizations are noticing a sharp increase in their need for data storage capacity.
Although many healthcare facilities have historically handled all data storage needs internally, it is not always the most economical solution; it requires a lot of hardware resources and, depending on the size of the facility, may require additional IT staff members to manage it all.
Due to the rising demand for data storage, many healthcare organizations are looking to third-party vendors for help. But every organization has different needs. So how can you determine whether outsourcing data storage is right for your facility? And if it is, which data storage option is most appropriate for your needs?
To determine how best to proceed, it helps to answer the following questions:
- How big is our institution?
- How many patients do we serve?
- Do we operate out of a single location or are we part of a healthcare network?
- What type of facility are we (e.g., hospital, outpatient clinic, private practice, imaging center, etc.)?
- What application workloads are consuming significant amounts of space and what performance requirements do those applications have? How much space do we need?
- How many imaging devices and databases do we need to accommodate?
- What is the typical size of the images/data that we store?
- How much do we expect patient population and/or procedure volume to grow in the near future?
- What is the nature of the data we want to store? Consider structured versus unstructured data. Unstructured data (e.g., Excel files, video, clinical images, etc.) typically makes up the majority of the data produced by organizations, and it is more difficult to store and secure.
- How effective is our data-tiering strategy today? Do we have a data-tiering strategy?
- What is the total cost of ownership for storage, including management, staffing, space and power?
- How much of the data must be accessible in a moment’s notice?
- Who needs to access the data and from where? Consider whether your organization uses laptops, tablet devices or PDAs to access patient data.
An important area to assess when evaluating storage strategies is how data storage is tiered. Evaluate whether the facility’s primary storage is being used for workloads that could be moved to lower-cost platforms. A good use case for cloud storage in healthcare is archiving older images that are infrequently accessed. Once a medical image is more than 30 days old, the likelihood of it being used drops dramatically, so it could be beneficial to move that data from high-cost primary storage to a lower-cost platform.
After a thorough assessment of the needs of your organization, you can begin to look at the different data storage options that are available through service providers – such as cloud storage, where data is stored in virtualized pools hosted by third parties, and managed storage solutions based on traditional enterprise technologies, such as storage area network (SAN) and network attached storage (NAS). There are benefits to each, and it is important to understand them before making decisions.
Compared to the traditional acquisition model of storage as a capital expense, cloud and managed storage solutions can offer a reduction in the total cost of ownership (TCO) per unit of storage and a more predictable cost structure for your organization. Traditional storage acquisition models typically require customers to purchase new storage devices that are significantly over-provisioned on day 1 to reduce the risk of obsolescence down the road. This dramatically reduces the effective utilization rates for storage platforms, as much of the capacity sits idle for the first half of the device’s lifetime.
Unfortunately, growth is often highly unpredictable due to consolidation or acquisitions, and it is also difficult to predict when the storage asset will become full, requiring another large capital expenditure (capex) purchase. Cloud and managed storage arrangements offer customers a way around this dilemma, with the customer being able to purchase storage on an as-needed basis and the provider bearing the capex and obsolescence risk on the storage platform.
SAN and NAS can be purchased as a managed service and can be an ideal solution for organizations that require massively scalable, high-performance storage solutions. But cloud storage is an increasingly good option, as well. In the information technology industry, the adoption of cloud computing is booming as a whole and adoption rates are increasing.
Many healthcare organizations have been reluctant to move entire workloads to cloud environments; however, cloud storage provides an attractive entryway into cloud computing. The cloud is more secure than one might think, and privacy and security concerns can be addressed with encryption. The cloud is a viable option for healthcare institutions and should be considered as such when you weigh your storage options.
One of the biggest benefits of cloud storage is the scalability – data storage capacity expands in real time to accommodate the amount of data stored and, as a result, an organization only pays for the storage that it uses. Data stored in the cloud is also easily accessible, as Web-based interfaces allow users to upload or retrieve data from any device connected to the Internet. The cloud also saves an organization from the upfront expenses on equipment and ongoing maintenance associated with other storage options.
Cloud storage can also be tied into other cloud services, such as a complete disaster-recovery solution, whether managed by the service provider or the customer. Cloud computing offerings include public, private and hybrid cloud options. While a public cloud consists of a shared infrastructure, a resource pool with bursting ability and co-mingled data storage, a private cloud features an on-premise infrastructure with fixed resources and fully dedicated data.
In a time of digital transition, storing the influx of data is a challenge for many healthcare institutions. Outsourcing data storage can take a lot of the burden away from the IT administrator, and effective management of stored data can reap major benefits for a healthcare organization – from cost savings to ensured security – increasing the effectiveness of the medical professionals who work there.
If an organization finds that it will soon outgrow its data storage needs, it is worthwhile to look into working with a qualified, reliable third-party vendor to find the proper storage solution.
About the author
Rob Carter is director of managed services and cloud solutions, Windstream. For more on Windstream, click here.