When we imagine what our healthcare services will look like in the future, we foresee a data-driven, mobile revolution, where we, and our medical caretakers, can receive instantaneous examination results, where complex scans deliver images on the spot, and analytics take our medical history and deliver insights to patterns or possible risks. But as the healthcare industry moves towards a digitalized, connected future, it also faces great technical challenges.
I recently had the honor to present at the 2014 CIO Healthcare Summit in Dallas, Texas. It was an opportunity to discuss the concerns of CIOs and IT managers in the healthcare industry, and the challenges they face in meeting data and storage demands ahead.
Overcoming Storage Bottlenecks
The healthcare industry is being transformed by a mandated move from paper to electronic medical records (EMR), and regulatory compliance requirements. And as the world of healthcare moves towards this digital data infrastructure, it finds that existing storage systems simply aren’t able to deliver the performance required for large data sets, analyzing massive medical record data, or quickly retrieving high-resolution diagnostic images.
When hospitals receive patient information from other sources, such as an insurance company or other medical facility, the data received is often very large and structured very differently from how physicians or lab data is systemized in-house. Analyzing these large, semi-structured or unstructured data, puts a great strain on storage I/O operation, which is the bottleneck of current spinning hard drive-based infrastructure .
The problem is that while various compute resources have improved exponentially over the past years, while disk drive performance has steadily degraded (access density). In fact, with all these advancements in technology, hard drive storage has become a bottleneck that’s actually slowing down applications. If we look at the data chain, a typical server processor can read data out of main memory at 100 nanoseconds, but it takes about 500,000 times that long to read data off the disk – that’s a huge delay! And if you multiply this for every patient record, and data set that needs to be accesses simultaneously, healthcare IT is finding its storage coming to a screeching halt.
Flash Transforming Healthcare IT Data Centers
Recently, Redmond Magazine wrote about the rise of SSDs in data centers, taking a look the solutions implemented by one of SanDisk® Enterprise’s customers, the Middle Tennessee Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) Clinic. No matter how much memory and CPU resources were in the server, their application was constrained by the bottleneck of spinning disk-based storage system that could not retrieve the electronic medical records (EMR) data fast enough, leaving both the healthcare providers and patients frustrated.
Like many other institutions, the Middle Tennessee ENT Clinic found their solution by enhancing their IT infrastructure with flash-based storage and solid-state drives (SSDs). With SSDs delivering greater than 100x the performance of spinning drives, they are able to eliminate the bottleneck created by legacy hard drives. And as data sets such as CT scans and medical records continue to grow at a rapid pace, SSDs can help data centers to scale performance with less infrastructure – which translates to less maintenance, floor space, electricity and overall costs.
Going Beyond SSDs
Flash storage solutions are not a one-size fit all, and our ability to design and control flash-based technology delivers an array of solutions tailored for performance needs, workload type or budget constraints.
For example, to gain more efficiency while still keeping some of their legacy infrastructure (no one likes a data center forklift!), the Middle Tennessee ENT Clinic implemented SanDisk’s FlashSoft software. FlashSoft intelligently places hot data (data that’s frequently accessed) on SSDs as the server cache, enabling the clinic to have rapid access to currently retrieved records in their EMR system.
Virtualization Pain Points
Like many industries, healthcare is taking on virtualization of servers, storage and desktop, to get the most out of hardware and provide flexibility for a wide range of users (i.e. doctors, administrators and technicians).
With multiple workloads simultaneously communicating with a single volume, or ‘boot storms’ – when large numbers of end-users start up their VDI applications, as usually happens in the morning upon staff arrival – virtualization brings on big storage challenges.
Flash can not only be leveraged to avoid storage I/O bottlenecks that are associated with highly virtualized workloads, but new flash-based technologies such as SanDisk’s ULLtraDIMM SSD, bring an all new tier to deliver ultra low latency and higher IOPS and at a far lower cost than DRAM – as I demonstrated in my presentation:
Big Data Analytics
With healthcare diving deep into Big Data, huge opportunities will arise helping researchers find treatments quicker, recognizing demographic health trends and helping design efficiencies that save healthcare providers a great deal of money.
We frequently discuss Big Data on this blog, as massive data requirements demand the performance and efficiency benefits of SSDs. Here is one of the slides I shared at the summit, showing how MongoDB, Hadoop or NoSQL type databases, see up to 20x performance improvement by using SSDs and optimizing applications using SanDisk ZetaScale (previously Schooner Technologies), helping organizations to extract even more value from Big Data.
To Flash and Beyond
The healthcare industry is undergoing massive changes. Health information technology leaders are having great challenges to solve as they transition to a data-driven workflow, undertake Big Data strategies, and ensure the privacy of those whom they serve. SSDs are playing a key role in expediting this process by improving the quality of image processing, increasing the transfer speeds of large files and enabling a future of a far improved healthcare experience for patients and medical providers alike.
John is SVP, Advanced Storage Technologies group, under the CTO's office at Western Digital with 25+ years in the storage industry.