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Healthcare network upgrades SAN for disaster recovery

OhioHealth ties a Fibre Channel SAN into an optical network for disaster recovery and business continuity between its data centers.

Many healthcare facilities have gone from IT laggards to cutting edge in recent years to keep up with the latest medical technology. That was the case with OhioHealth, which last year installed a 10 Gbit optical network and upgraded its storage area network (SAN) for high availability between data centers and other sites.

The result is synchronous data replication for disaster recovery and business continuity between two data centers, a central business office, surgery center and hospitals, said Jim Lowder, OhioHealth's vice president of technology.

Lowder said the upgrade was a way for OhioHealth to guarantee that its doctors and radiologists would have access electronically to systems, such as PACS, CTs and other new radiology technologies. OhioHealth already had a SAN with EMC Clarrion and Symmetrix systems at its Columbus [Ohio] data center to keep up with growing data storage demands of the new medical technology, but Lowder wanted to make the data highly available.

"If a system isn't available, you're back to manual procedures and potential errors are going to occur," he said. "We really wanted to put a focus on these systems that have to be highly available and have up to the second information – not through a hot site; we really needed a second data center. We thought, 'How can we have up-to-the-second info and not degraded info?' That's when we looked at putting our own private fiber network."

OhioHealth installed a fiber optic network running DWDM between its sites. The SAN is part of that.

"We run DWDM so we run Fibre Channel over one of those light waves," Lowder said. "We have real-time data replication. That gives us much higher system availability. In the event of a catastrophe in our data center here, we're confident of our availability capabilities. Virtualization helps us, as well. We can cluster and replicate every system and use virtual capabilities to build servers on the fly."

OhioHealth upgraded its Fibre Channel switches when it installed the optical network, swapping out McData directors and switches for Cisco MDS directors. McData had recently been acquired by switch rival Brocade at the time, and OhioHealth got its optical equipment from Cisco.

"We took a hard look at whether we had the infrastructure we needed to build a second data center," Lowder said. "With the McData switches, I wouldn't call them end of life, but it was reaching time to make a decision."

He ended up buying four Cisco MDS 9509 directors and has about 250 hosts attached redundantly.

"Having McData in-house, we knew how well we worked with that equipment," he said. "We liked some of the features of the MDS equipment, and certainly our relationship with Cisco factored into that. We have a very good local support team with Cisco and EMC, although EMC remained neutral related to [FC switches]. Our technical folks did the evaluation of where they felt each vendor was in the market and how well they were keeping up with newer technology for investment protection. We felt like Cisco had a better product and fit our needs better."

Lowder said the biggest advantage for Cisco was its VSAN capabilities. "We split our traffic, especially with what we're doing with replication," he said. "McData had core and edge switches. With MDS, it's more that the edge is essentially plugged into the director and into the backplane. Not having to deal with the core and edge concept makes it easier to manage and it's higher performing. We can spend more time managing the data and not the infrastructure around it."

Lowder said he has about 200 TB stored on SANs, with about 120 TB at the primary data center and the rest at the secondary data center. He uses EMC's SRDF and SRDF/CE to replicate data between them. The idea is to be able to switch between data centers seamlessly in case of disaster or planned downtime for operating system upgrades, patches, etc.

"We're trying to get away from calling it primary and secondary," he said. "We're looking to balance that out. We've never done it on a global basis, but for maintenance we switch from one to another and our customers never know it. They may see a small glitch during cutover, but once we're running, they don't know."

Lowder said the PACS system is the biggest challenge for his SAN, both because of the capacity requirements to store the large files and the need to keep all of the patients' records.

"We've split our archive -- we're doing the whole ILM piece," he said. "We store data early in life when it's used a lot on high-speed disk, our [Symmetrix] DMX platform. Then as they age, the files go to Clariion and then to [Sun} tape [libraries]."

The new setup is an example of how healthcare has advanced its IT capabilities in recent years, according to Lowder.

"I've been in healthcare for 16 years, and I've always felt we were behind the times," he said. "Healthcare has traditionally not embraced technology, but that has changed rapidly, mostly with electronic records. It wasn't that long ago, maybe five years, when radiologists were still hanging film. Now we have that big CT that will generate 2,000 or 3,000 images, I can't imagine printing that on film."

Neither can the radiologists, apparently. "We have 100 radiologists across all our campuses in central Ohio," he said. "Efficiency drops to next to nothing when our computers are down. Radiologists have gotten used to the technology, and they're sensitive to any delay. They're used to clicking it and it coming up. And physicians aren't the most patient people in the world when they have to wait."

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