Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs

Brien Posey, Freelance Writer and Former CIO | 2/14/2013 | 8 comments

Brien Posey
Healthcare providers produce an ever-expanding collection of electronic health records and medical imaging data.

Storing such a high volume of data can be challenging, and this is compounded by long-term retention requirements. As such, healthcare providers often search for creative solutions to data storage problems.

Here are some of the storage options I've seen in use by healthcare organizations:

  • Storage area network (SAN)
  • File server storage
  • Network attached storage (NAS)
  • Tape storage
  • Cloud storage
  • Robotic tape library

Most large healthcare organizations make use of a storage area network (SAN). Portions of the SAN are often used to house virtual machines, while other areas of the SAN are used for data storage. This means that plenty of demands are already being made against the SAN well before the long-term retention of exponentially growing data is even brought into the equation.

The nice thing about SAN environments is that they deliver high performance and they are very flexible. It is relatively easy to expand a SAN as an organization's storage needs increase. The problem with doing so, of course, is that SAN is expensive.

In any large healthcare organization, there is always some data that undoubtedly needs to be stored using a SAN. That data might need to be protected by the various forms of redundancy provided by the SAN, or there might be a benefit to storing the data on high-performance media. For such data, there is a legitimate business need for using SAN.

Oftentimes, however, there is data that really doesn't need to be stored on a SAN. Most hospitals, for example, have static data that is rarely accessed. It doesn't make sense from a business perspective to use an expensive SAN for data that could just as easily reside on a less expensive form of storage. Healthcare organizations typically address the challenges of long-term data storage by classifying data based on its age and the frequency of access. The data is then moved among various storage tiers according to threshold values set by the administrator.

Alternatives to SAN for storing seldom-used data
There are a number of different ways that static or seldom-accessed data can be stored. Some organizations choose to use file server storage or network attached storage (NAS), while others depend on tape or cloud storage. It is becoming increasingly common, however, to use some combination of these storage types.

To give you a concrete example of how storage tiering might be used, consider the hospitals that I used to oversee. At the time that I worked there, the organization had a policy of keeping each patient's medical records for 10 years after the patient's death. Through usage tracking, it was determined that if a patient died in the hospital, their medical records were accessed on a fairly regular basis for the next couple of months. After that, the records were almost never accessed again.

This is a perfect example of static data that must be kept, but that may never be accessed again. You probably don't want this type of data taking up space on your SAN, so where should you store it?

One solution is to archive the data to tape. While this is certainly a viable option, it must be done carefully. Sometimes, even the most mundane data can unexpectedly become important. Suppose, for example, that eight years after a patient's death someone completely unrelated to the patient decided to file a malpractice suit against the doctor? Attorneys might subpoena the medical records of everyone that the doctor had treated for a similar condition. If this sort of thing should happen, you really don't want to have to wonder where the tape containing that archived data might be. The data needs to be readily accessible.

There are a few different ways of dealing with this problem. One option is to archive data to the cloud instead of to tape. Although cloud storage is certainly a viable option, it can be expensive. Most of the cloud storage providers bill customers monthly for the amount of storage space used. In other words, as the volume of data that you are archiving grows, so do the monthly charges from the cloud provider.

Another option might be to use a robotic tape library. One of the organizations that I used to work for had a large data warehouse filled with tapes. If archived data was needed, a robot would automatically retrieve the tape from a shelf and insert it into a tape drive in the next room. This type of storage worked well because the cost per gigabyte was low and there were no ongoing storage fees. Of course, the initial investment in hardware can be quite expensive.

Whatever type of storage you decide to use, you will need data life-cycle management software that can automatically move data from one storage tier to another as the data ages. The software should also be able to automatically purge data when it is no longer needed.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
Sara Peters   Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs   2/20/2013 5:09:06 PM
e-discovery challenges
Great point, Brien: "Sometimes, even the most mundane data can unexpectedly become important. Suppose, for example, that eight years after a patient's death someone completely unrelated to the patient decided to file a malpractice suit against the doctor? Attorneys might subpoena the medical records of everyone that the doctor had treated for a similar condition." That's certainly something healthcare CIOs need to keep in mind when making their storage plans, especially because when the court requests data, organizations are supposed to be able to produce that data within a certain narrow time frame. But is this really a challenge to be solved by choosing a particular storage medium -- couldn't we still use cheaper storage media, but organize our processes/records in a way that makes the records easy to find if need be?
Sara Peters   Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs   2/20/2013 4:51:39 PM
Re: Enter exchanges...
@CMTucker  When you bring health information exchanges into the mix it definitely seems to make better sense to have some data stored in the cloud so it's more easily shared. But do you think that this changes the fact that the rarely accessed records -- like the medical history of someone who died 5 years ago, or the X-Rays from when I broke my elbow when I was 9 -- should be stored in different, cheaper storage methods?
Sara Peters   Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs   2/20/2013 4:48:30 PM
Re: payment by hospitals or patients??
@rdv  Yeesh! I certainly hope that's never something that I'm going to have to decide at the counter when making my copay. Even though I have more tech-savvy than the average bear, I don't know if I'd want the responsibility of making such decisions.
stotheco   Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs   2/19/2013 2:12:45 AM
Re: payment by hospitals or patients??
It's such a huge shame that some people cannot get the health benefits or treatment they need because they just don't have the money for it. What happened to insurance and benefits? I know it costs $$$ to operate hospitals and to keep it running... But really, it's such a sad thing when you have people deciding how many fingers they can save because they lack the cash.
singlemud   Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs   2/18/2013 4:59:14 PM
Re: payment by hospitals or patients??
That is interesting thought. It remind me Michael Moore Sicko documentary. The patient had to decide to save one finger or two fingers due to short of money.
CMTucker   Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs   2/18/2013 2:19:34 PM
Enter exchanges...
Scale up the hospital/system record protocols to the state level. That's what is next and is going to be a pain in the *ahem* to put together. Not to mention inclusion of media like CT scans, X-Rays, and Charts.
rdv   Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs   2/15/2013 1:06:42 AM
payment by hospitals or patients??
   If the hospitals use latest technology for their medical equipments then the pateints are charged heavliy for using those equipments for treatment...

"Most of the cloud storage providers bill customers monthly for the amount of storage space used..."

Does this mean that the patient have to pay directly for the storage??  Or while at the admission counter the patient will be asked for the storage option (1year storage, 10year storage of records) and hence the charge!!!
rdv   Solving Healthcare's Long-Term Storage Needs   2/15/2013 12:52:01 AM
Will help having a backup plan...
Brien, Thanks for the blog post...

"The data is then moved among various storage tiers according to threshold values..."

   This will really help hospitals in 2 ways

1> Backing up data which is not used occasionally at lower cost.

2> The hospital will have another option of storage for Disaster management.

   But do you think that tracking the patient data, the amount of time it has remained untouched (something like page ranking that google has)... and moving it in and out of different storage networks will be easy (using the life-cycle management software)??

The blogs and comments posted on do not reflect the views of TechWeb,, or its sponsors., TechWeb, and its sponsors do not assume responsibility for any comments, claims, or opinions made by authors and bloggers. They are no substitute for your own research and should not be relied upon for trading or any other purpose.

More Blogs from Brien Posey
Brien Posey   4/15/2014   40 comments
Being a CIO is a tough job, but the job can be even tougher if you have a department manager who is just a little too aggressive toward you or the staff. Fortunately, there are some ...
Brien Posey   4/8/2014   15 comments
For those of us who work in IT, one of the most disturbing trends over the last couple of years has been the all-out push from vendors to move seemingly anything and everything to the cloud.
Brien Posey   4/1/2014   21 comments
One of the most important and yet least glamorous tasks that must be performed in IT is that of documentation. Even if an IT shop is not subject to any sort of federal regulation requiring ...
Brien Posey   3/26/2014   30 comments
With increasing frequency, healthcare IT is being charged with helping to use data analytic techniques to derive meaningful business intelligence from existing data. For example, it is ...
Brien Posey   3/19/2014   9 comments
It is no big secret that Electronic Health Records implementations have been especially problematic for certain organizations. The incentives for providers to achieve meaningful use and ...
Latest Archived Broadcast
We talk with Bernard Golden about accelerating application delivery in the cloud.
On-demand Video with Chat
Register for this video discussion to learn how tablets can provide true business usability and productivity.
E2 IT Migration Zones
IT Migration Zone - UK
Why PowerShell Is Important
Reduce the Windows 8 Footprint for VDI
Rethinking Storage Management
IT Migration Zone - FR
SQL Server : 240 To de mémoire flash pour votre data warehouse
Quand Office vient booster les revenus Cloud et Android de Microsoft
Windows Phone : Nokia veut davantage d'applications (et les utilisateurs aussi)
IT Migration Zone - DE
Cloud Computing: Warum Unternehmen trotz NSA auf die „private“ Wolke setzen sollten
Cloud Computing bleibt Wachstumsmarkt – Windows Azure ist Vorreiter
Like Us on Facebook
Twitter Feed
Enterprise Efficiency Twitter Feed
Site Moderators Wanted
Enterprise Efficiency is looking for engaged readers to moderate the message boards on this site. Engage in high-IQ conversations with IT industry leaders; earn kudos and perks. Interested? E-mail:
Dell's Efficiency Modeling Tool
The major problem facing the CIO is how to measure the effectiveness of the IT department. Learn how Dell’s Efficiency Modeling Tool gives the CIO two clear, powerful numbers: Efficiency Quotient and Impact Quotient. These numbers can be transforma¬tive not only to the department, but to the entire enterprise.

Read the full report
The State of Enterprise Efficiency in the Virtual Era: Virtualization – Smart Approaches to Maximize Gains
Virtualization is a presence in nearly all enterprise data centers. But not all companies are using it to its best effect. Learn the common characteristics of success, what barriers companies face, and how to get the most from your efforts.

Read the full report
Informed CIO: Dollars & Sense: Virtual Desktop Infrastructure
Cut through the VDI hype and get the full picture -- including ROI and the impact on your Data Center -- to make an informed decision about your virtual desktop infrastructure deployments.

Read the full report
A Video Case Study – Translational Genomics Research Institute
e2 Video

On the Case
TGen IT: Where We're Going Next

7|11|12   |   08:12   |   10 comments

Now that TGen has broken new ground in genomic research by using Dell's storage, cloud, and high-performance computing solutions, the company discusses what will come next for it and for personalized medicine.
On the Case
Better Care Through Better Communications

6|6|12   |   02:24   |   11 comments

The achievements of the TGen/Dell project could improve how all people receive healthcare, because they are creating ways to improve end-to-end communication of medical data.
On the Case
TGen IT: Where We Are Now

5|15|12   |   06:58   |   6 comments

TGen is breaking new ground in genomic research by using Dell's storage, cloud, and high-performance computing solutions.
On the Case
TGen IT: Where We Were

4|27|12   |   06:45   |   10 comments

The Translational Genomics Research Institute wanted to save lives, but its efforts were hobbled by immense computing challenges related to collecting, processing, sharing, and storing enormous amounts of data.
On the Case
1,200% Faster

4|18|12   |   02:27   |   12 comments

Through their partnership, Dell and TGen have increased the speed of TGen’s medical research by 1,200 percent.
On the Case
IT May Improve Children's Chances of Survival

4|17|12   |   02:12   |   8 comments

IT is helping medical researchers reach breakthroughs in a way and pace never seen before.
On the Case
Medical Advances in the Cloud

4|10|12   |   1:25   |   5 comments

TGen and Dell are pushing the boundaries of computing, and harnessing the power of the cloud to improve healthcare.
On the Case
TGen: Living the Mission

4|9|12   |   2:25   |   3 comments

TGen's CIO puts the organizational mission at the heart of everything the IT staff does.
On the Case
TGen Speeding Up Biomedical Research to Save More Lives

4|5|12   |   1:59   |   6 comments

The Translational Genomics Research Institute is revamping its computing to improve speed, storage, and collaboration – and, most importantly, to save lives.
On the Case
Computing Power Helping to Save Children's Lives

3|28|12   |   2:13   |   3 comments

The Translational Genomics Institute’s partnership with Dell is enabling them to treat kids with neuroblastoma more quickly and save more lives.
Tom Nolle
The Big Reason to Use Office

3|18|14   |   02:24   |   46 comments

Office and personal productivity tools come in a first-class and coach flavor set, but what makes the difference is primarily little things that most users won't encounter. What's the big issue in using something other than Office, and can you get around it?
E2 Editors
SPONSORED: Mobile Security — A Use Case

3|4|14   |   04:27   |   16 comments

New mobile security solutions can accommodate a wide array of needs, including those of a complex university environment.
Tom Nolle
Killing Net Neutrality Might Save You Money

1|16|14   |   2:13   |   16 comments

The DC Court of Appeals voided most of the Neutrality Order, and whatever it might mean for the Internet overall, it might mean better and cheaper Internet VPNs for businesses.
Tom Nolle
The Internet of Everythinguseful

1|10|14   |   2:18   |   19 comments

We really don't want an "Internet of Everything" but even building an Internet of Everythinguseful means setting some ground rules to insure there's value in the process and that costs and risks are minimized.
Tom Nolle
Maturing Google Chrome

12|30|13   |   2.18   |   25 comments

Google's Chrome OS has a lot of potential value and a lot of recent press, but it still needs something to make it more than a thin client. It needs cloud integration, it needs extended APIs via web services, and it needs to suck it up and support a hard drive.
Sara Peters
No More Cookie-Cutter IT

12|23|13   |   03.58   |   21 comments

Creating the right combination of technology, people, and processes for your IT organization is a lot like baking Christmas cookies.
Sara Peters
Smart Wigs Not a Smart Idea

12|5|13   |   3:01   |   46 comments

Sony is seeking a patent for wigs that contain computing devices.
Tom Nolle
Cloud in the Wild

12|4|13   |   02:23   |   15 comments

On a recent African trip I saw examples of the value of the cloud in developing nations, for educational and community development programs. We could build on this, but not only in developing economies, because these same programs are often under-supported even in first-world countries.
E2 Editors
SPONSORED: Is Malware Evading Your IPS?

11|18|13   |   03:16   |   4 comments

Intrusion prevention software is supposed to detect and block malware intrusions, but clever malware authors can evade your IPS in these five main ways.
Sara Peters
Where Have All the Mentors Gone?

9|27|13   |   3:15   |   38 comments

A good professional mentor can change your life for the better... but where do you find one?
Tom Nolle
SDN Wars & You Could Win

9|17|13   |   2:10   |   5 comments

VMware's debate with Cisco on SDN might finally create a fusion between an SDN view that's all about software and another that's all about network equipment. That would be good for every enterprise considering the cloud and SDN.
Ivan Schneider
The Future of the Smart Watch

9|12|13   |   3:19   |   39 comments

Wearing a bulky, oversized watch is good training for the next phase in wristwatches: the Internet-enabled, connected watch. Why the smartphone-tethered connected watch makes sense, plus Ivan demos an entirely new concept for the "smart watch."
Tom Nolle
Cutting Your Cloud Storage Costs

9|4|13   |   2:06   |   3 comments

Cloud storage costs are determined primarily by the rate at which files are changed and the possibility of concurrent access/update. If you can structure your storage use to optimize these factors you can cut costs, perhaps to zero.
Sara Peters
Do CIOs Need an IT Background?

8|29|13   |   2:11   |   23 comments

Most of the CIOs interviewed in the How to Become a CIO series did not start their careers as IT professionals. So is an IT background essential?
Ivan Schneider
The Internet Loves Birthdays

8|27|13   |   3:25   |   69 comments

The Internet has evolved into a machine for drumming up a chorus of "Happy Birthday" messages, from family, friends, friends of friends who you added on Facebook, random people that you circled on G+, and increasingly, automated bots. Enough already.