H03_DisasterRecovery_Spectra Logic_MollyRector_90x113Healthcare data must be protected to conform to HIPAA requirements, which active archive supports through the expanded role of tape.

Disasters can put healthcare institutions in the daunting position of needing to treat patients and simultaneously preserve at-risk data that may be necessary to treatment. This combination makes healthcare disaster recovery (DR) extremely challenging.

Data retrieval following a disaster must support two critical yet discrete purposes: preserving patient information to ensure high-quality care and providing business continuity for the infrastructure behind patient care. HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) regulations that govern electronic personal health information (ePHI) privacy further complicate DR requirements. This complexity is aggravated by the increasing risk of disaster given an ever-larger population, making healthcare DR planning an absolute necessity.

DR planning for healthcare institutions benefits from technologies now available across multiple industries. These new tools and advanced technologies make it possible to retain access to data during a disaster through a combination of data copies stored at multiple sites and the use of active archive. Active archive, in conjunction with standard backup processes, permits rapid recovery, in part because active archive reduces the amount of data backed up. At the same time, data stored in the archive is always accessible.

What is active archive?
The term archive in the healthcare industry sometimes refers to the storage of imaging data. An active archive extends to all data, including ePHI, financial data and imaging data (such as that historically stored in picture archiving and communication systems, or PACS). An active archive also allows this data to be continuously accessible. In the case of disaster, the information is retrieved from a remote site, using a combination of disk and tape.

Active archive is a method that has been in use over decades in data-driven industries including high-performance computing (HPC), media and entertainment. Because of the tremendous growth of data in all markets, new markets are continually implementing active archive. Its use in healthcare is a natural progression, as healthcare relies on and generates enormous amounts of electronic data. Further, healthcare data must be protected to conform to HIPAA requirements, which active archive supports through the expanded role of tape, with its encryption capabilities and media longevity.


Active archive stores and accesses data, independent of the media used to store it. Access is rapid through content indexing, which creates metadata that describes the stored information. With content indexing, users can quickly find and restore data directly. With active archive, data is stored on both disk and tape, and can be accessed using a standard file system interface. The active archive application simply finds and retrieves the data. If the data isn’t on disk, the system gets the data from tape without requiring the extra step of restoring it through backup software. Data retrieved from tape may require a few extra minutes – latency typically acceptable for data that may not have been accessed for years – but is important to immediate patient care. As a result, all healthcare staff, including physicians and nursing staff, have immediate access to information about their patients, regardless of the date of origin of the patient record.

Traditional tape implementation success: Weill Medical College
New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College relies on tape for backup and disaster recovery, in part because of the ease of encrypting data; encrypting ePHI provides protection that meets HIPAA requirements. John Ruffing, assistant director for Advanced Technology Integration Services, says that he uses the Spectra T950 library with LTO tape media in part because the medical college “did not need to redesign our previous network environment to add Spectra encryption.” BlueScale Encryption works with existing backup policies and disaster recovery strategies, and requires no additional hardware or software. Tape supports rapid nightly backup of data, with encryption to ensure confidentiality, and also provides longevity necessary to HIPAA and for DR efforts.

Advantages of tape in a healthcare setting
Tape, with its inherent encryption capabilities and extremely high reliability, provides the protection required to meet HIPAA requirements. HIPAA requires electronic data to be stored for a defined and lengthy period, and requires the data to be retrievable. Tape is the only storage medium with a lifespan that can be relied on to meet HIPAA rules. With the combination of significantly greater reliability over SATA disk (orders of magnitude) and longer life, tape is an excellent choice for any healthcare data-protection strategy.

Affordability is also key in any DR planning, because affordability makes the planning realistic and sustainable. Tape in any analysis is less expensive than disk; tape complements disk used for data protection.
Example of DR strategy using active archive

In this model, the components of a data protection and disaster recovery plan include:

  • Active archive application;
  • Backup application;
  • Disk and tape storage;
  • Multiple data storage sites – two or more,  each outside of the other’s disaster zone; and
  • Secure, optimized WAN or other channel between sites.

Data management policy
This strategy shifts the sole focus on backup to support disaster recovery to a focus on active archive to support access to all data all the time, even following a disaster.


Prior to active archive, data centers relied on data protection applications to protect all site data. These require extra steps to reconstitute data through the data protection applications after a disaster.

With an active archive application in place, data is readily accessible through a standard file system interface. If the local site goes down, the remote active archive site continues to provide data access. Managed in part by the active archive application, data policies automatically manage data – creating multiple copies, moving data from disk to tape as data ages and more. Active archive systems automatically create copies of data and track the multiple locations of the data.

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By archiving appropriate data shortly after creation, information is no longer backed up multiple times. Instead, it is retained in and can be accessed using the active archive system. The active archive implementation results in smaller backups that reduce strain on daily data center operations and ensure that backup windows are adequate to protect the site’s data. When a disaster does strike, the amount of data to be restored from backups is much smaller. Restoring the small amount of backup data becomes a very manageable step in the larger disaster recovery process.

DR planning doesn’t need to be a disaster
A well-planned active archive storage implementation increases access to all stored data, both during and after a disaster.  Access to patient data and healthcare infrastructure data, such as financials, facilitates the recovery of critical healthcare operations within a short period.  

The active archive model represents a significant shift from more commonly adopted data-protection strategies in healthcare, and may require organizations to adjust how they use and access data. An increased use of tape facilitates access to data, which makes storage more affordable and manageable, and supports the rigorous discipline involved in disaster recovery planning and testing. Active archive allows healthcare organizations to fulfill their dual missions of preserving important patient information and providing continuity for the patient care infrastructure.   

About the author

Molly Rector is CMO, Spectra Logic. For more on Spectra Logic solutions, click here.

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