Fort HealthCare in Fort Atkinson, Wis., is an integrated hospital and health system that attracts patients from throughout the southeastern part of the state. The health system includes Fort Memorial Hospital, satellite clinics throughout the area, ambulatory surgery and specialty clinics, a birthing center, cardiac rehabilitation, emergency service, occupational medicine and more.
Five years ago, Fort HealthCare invested in seven redundant arrays of inexpensive disk (RAID) servers with a capacity of 0.5 terabytes of data. While this system was adequate, we knew that sooner or later the RAID servers would wear out and that we would either have to completely replace them with new arrays, or invest in a storage area network (SAN) for added functionality.
Complicating matters was the need to prepare for exponential data growth — fueled by the hospital's interest in adopting a picture archiving and communications system (PACS), and by the need to comply with the data-retention regulations mandated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). While we didn't know how much data storage we would need to accommodate, we knew the storage requirements would grow fast and keep growing, and that we would have to find a solution that would let our capacity grow in step with it.
Another factor influencing our decision was the desire to begin laying the groundwork for a future remote backup and disaster recovery site that would help the hospital keep critical patient data online and available in the event of a simple system failure or a major catastrophe. Any decision we made would have to enable us to deploy a backup site easily and efficiently sometime in the future.
RAID versus SAN
In early 2003, we set out to solve the problem by investigating the relative costs of new RAID servers compared with SANs. It became clear early on that replacing our existing setup with new RAID arrays would not be cost effective in the long-term and would not allow us to create the remote backup site we felt was essential.
We also wanted a solution that allowed us to gain the benefits of storage virtualization. Virtualization is the name given to technologies that mask a lot of the complexity associated with storage networking while integrating added functionality. The concept of virtualization was attractive to us because, as a regional hospital system, we cannot afford to have dedicated storage experts on staff to manage every complex detail.
In April of 2003, we got the go-ahead to begin seriously evaluating storage vendors with the intent to purchase a system. We narrowed the list to Hitachi Data Systems (Santa Clara, Calif.), EMC (Hopkinton, Mass.), HP (Palo Alto, Calif.) and Xiotech (Eden Prairie, Minn.). After a couple of months spent evaluating the separate approaches to virtualizing storage, the different architectures and pricing schemes, we decided to purchase Xiotech's Magnitude 3D.
While the other companies all had something unique and interesting to offer, Xiotech was appealing for a variety of reasons. For one, Xiotech's approach to storage virtualization made the most sense to us. We liked how Magnitude 3D creates a pool of virtual storage capacity across all the drives on the SAN. This approach offered what seemed to be the flexibility and expandability for incremental growth as our data grows.
With other SAN options, we would have to purchase more storage than we needed at the time, or face the prospect of dealing with inadequate storage resources in the future. Furthermore, when our storage needs crept up to that limit, we did not like the idea of conducting a capacity upgrade of the system, which would cause us to take the system down and the data offline for several days.
Another deciding factor was that with Magnitude 3D we could deploy a secondary SAN for offsite backup and recovery without having to buy additional software to link the two systems together. Our decision to purchase Xiotech's SAN was cemented by a visit to their offices: the ease of use, as well as the five year history of the Magnitude line.
Upon making the final decision in November 2003, we arranged for the SAN to be installed and for training on the system. Initial installation took about a day. As for training, we found that after a few minutes of orientation to the SAN interface, we were able to perform most of the routine functions, like creating virtual disks and attaching them to the servers to allow booting from the SAN. Some of the more advanced functions — like assigning hot swap drives and distributing the load over both storage processors — were covered during the following two days spent with the Xiotech installation team.
While a few minor issues forced us to contact customer support after the installation was completed, since installation we have needed little interaction with Xiotech.
A year later, we are now able to add storage on the fly. Magnitude 3D also streamlines the process of adding new servers and testing new applications by allowing us to boot servers from the SAN — without downtime.
The SAN also stabilizes the entire computing system and takes the risk out of updating or expanding applications such as Microsoft Exchange, Meditech (Westwood, Mass.) and Dallas-based T-System's emergency room documentation system. We are currently expanding T-System and are depending on Magnitude 3D to help us get there quickly and efficiently. The process of booting from the SAN, and the ability to snap a copy of the running server, ensures that if something goes wrong, we have a fallback. We can reconfigure everything back to a working state without service interruptions.
The greatest benefits, however, come in direct relation to the issues that prompted us to purchase a SAN in the first place. To begin with, the SAN is a vast improvement over the old RAID servers. Today, with the SAN, our system is more flexible and easier to reconfigure, saving us both time and money.
Adding Servers, Subtracting Time
Adding new servers and applications can be done with just a few key strokes:
plug in the new server
mirror an existing virtual disk
break the mirror
give the server access to the new virtual disk
generate a new system ID
confirm the licensing
We probably save two hours on each server installation, relative to the time we used to spend on the same task.
— J.D., P.T.
The SAN is also proving to be a major asset as we begin to deal with all the factors, including PACS and HIPAA, which will begin to drive massive data growth. Right now, we're running 73GB drives, but when that is not enough we can just add bigger drives. Because of the system's virtualization capabilities, we can add capacity as we need it without taking the system down.
Jim Dahl and Peter Turner both work at Fort Atkinson, Wis.-based Fort HealthCare. Dahl is director of information systems; Turner is IS LAN administrator.