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Benefits of Object Storage to Health IT Infrastructure

Healthcare object storage is emerging as a viable option for large scale, long term clinical data storage.

Healthcare object storage is growing in health IT infrastructure.

Source: Thinkstock

- Healthcare organizations struggle with clinical data storage as the volume of data produced by connected devices and EHRs continues to grow. Object storage is an option that will allow organizations to retrieve data from the data store quickly and securely.

Key Information Systems Director of Cloud Service Clayton Weise sees potential in object storage to benefit the healthcare industry and move organizations away from dated legacy solutions, such as tapes.

“Object storage provides an inexpensive way to store vast pools of data, multiple petabytes up to exabyte scale within a single space,” Weise explained to HITInfrastructure.com. “The data stored using object is always accessible, unlike tape where I have to know the serial number, track the tape, and physically retrieve it.”

“Data in object stores is always accessible. Object storage makes data retrieval far more convenient.”

Object storage manages data as objects instead of files or blocks. Objects are kept in a storage pool that does not have a hierarchical structure.

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Instead, object storage uses unique identifiers that allow data to be stored anywhere in the storage pool. Storing data using object storage gives healthcare organizations more possibilities for data analytics and offers a scalable infrastructure.

Healthcare organizations face data storage and retrieval challenges because of the demand for instantly available data while still maintaining compliance with industry regulations.

“One of the biggest challenges is the exponential growth in the amount of data healthcare organizations are keeping,” said Weise. “Hospital regulatory requirements vary and there are certain rules and regulations that require patient data to be kept seven years. Some hospitals keep information for as long as the patient’s alive, and even then, they may not be deleting it.”

Weise explained that healthcare organizations traditionally archive data using tape because it’s considered more secure, but the volume of data makes data retrieval from a tape archive incontinent. Additionally, it becomes very expensive to manage and maintain tapes. Organizations need a solution that is both cost effective and makes data readily available.

“We’re starting to see some interest and understanding of object storage as a viable alternative to tape,” Weise noted. “Another use is for vendor neutral archives (VNAs) and picture archiving and communication systems (PACS), where you’re keeping medical images for extended periods of time.”

READ MORE: Comparing Public, Private, Hybrid Healthcare Cloud Storage

The biggest difference between object storage and tapes is management. Healthcare organizations are still using tapes because they are considered secure. Once data is written to the tape and it’s sent off to the data center, there is an error gap between where the data resides and user access to it.

Tapes are a good way to store backups because it’s not directly accessible, according to Weise. Offsite tapes give organizations the error gap and peace of mind. Buying tapes upfront is also cheaper than other storage solutions. However, the problem with tapes is management.

“It’s not just a matter of putting a tape in a bunker and calling it a day, you need to be able to access the data at some point,” said Weise. “If the data you have is stored on outdated tapes, they may need to be refreshed and brought onto new media. Managing tapes is difficult so object provides a similar price point in terms of buying, storing, and managing tapes.”  

Object storage offers healthcare organizations cost and convenience advantages. While tape is cheaper per terabyte comparatively, object becomes a more viable option once management costs are factored in.

Object storage also caters to healthcare analytics because of the volume of data it can handle from connected medical devices and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

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“Object storage is not where you run highspeed analytics because it’s not the fastest storage solution, but it’s a good place to store large amounts of data,” stated Weise “In terms of how it grows, it really depends on the technology used. Some hospitals have enough capacity to justify doing an object storage deployment of their own.”

“A lot of healthcare organizations have leveraged using someone else's deployment because it’s new technology,” he continued. “How you manage, run, and oversee object is different than how you manage, store, and oversee other technologies.”

Organizations are used to dealing with file and block storage and need to adjust their IT infrastructure to scale for object storage, which is relatively simple.

“Object storage is designed to be balanced among all the systems so most object storage systems have a way for you to rebalance that storage,” Weise explained. “You can flag a server or a storage pool as being taken off line and all the data will transition over and you can just remove it from production use.”

Object storage also has security advantages healthcare organizations can benefit from.

“What’s nice about object storage is that it keeps a change history,” Weise pointed out. “If there is ever anything that is changed or damaged, there is always historical data to go back to.”

“For example, if the objects are in a backup store and the backup store becomes infected with malware, you can just revert to a previous version of that object to retrieve the files. You can also flag certain objects as immutable so they can’t be changed which is good if you have to keep data for long periods of time, but can’t modify it.”

Weise advised organizations to first consider their capacity needs before considering object storage. Organizations need to have data on a large enough scale that it makes sense to deploy and object storage solution.

Organizations also need to consider how many applications they need to support and if the application support the use of object storage.

Weise also suggested organizations consider how object storage works and how the process meets HIPAA standards before and after data is migrated to object storage.

“It is a completely different way to access data which is important to take into consideration,” said Weise. “Right now, organizations are thinking about data in terms of block and file. The biggest thing is how to bridge that gap and what to do with all the unstructured data currently sitting in storage and move it to object.”

“It’s a matter of classifying the data and understanding what is going to be put into the object store,” he continued. “Because object storage is new, not all solutions will provide HIPAA required encryption.”

“The fact that it’s a different technology stack means that organizations need to take a lot of the same rules they’re applying to their current storage solution and take a fresh look into what they would be putting into the object store. There needs to be little interruption to operations and everything still needs to be secure and accessible.”