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St. Luke's triages healthcare data management for hospitals

Storage administrators for a network of hospitals and medical offices across Idaho turn to tagging and tiering software to staunch unstructured and ever-growing healthcare data.

The data centers at St. Luke's Health System, a network of hospitals and clinics headquartered in Boise, Idaho, needed its storage administrators to conduct a checkup.

Unstructured data swelled over the past several decades across the healthcare network's systems, spurred by the rise of interconnected medical systems -- particularly medical imaging tools and digital patient records, as well as remote work mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. If left unchecked, knowing what data was important and relevant for day-to-day operations and what can be archived could become a chronic headache.

Brett Sayles, a systems administrator at St. Luke's and a 20-year storage admin veteran at the company, wrote a prescription: Install a data management service to sort the valuable data from the cruft.

Sayles and the IT team at St. Luke's chose Komprise Data Management to help manage the symptoms of ballooning data growth such as archiving data, tiering storage and enabling St. Luke's employees to maintain visibility of all their files, regardless of location. Those insights and user patterns could help his team properly tier data without affecting employee workflows.

"Over the years, all I've wanted to know is how much data I have [and] how active is that data," Sayles said.

Doctor's orders

Sayles has worked within the storage division at St. Luke's under a variety of titles and responsibilities for the past 20 years. Most of his time focuses on the day-to-day management of storage systems and data centers that support St. Luke's.

"I'm Scotty in the engine room," he said, referring to the iconic chief engineer from the series Star Trek. "Nobody knows who I am until something breaks."

The entirety of St. Luke's storage system totals 8 PB of data spread across six hospitals and hundreds of medical office buildings across the state. Two major data centers are located in Boise and a third is colocated with Equinix in Washington State for proximity to the majority of cloud providers, including AWS and Microsoft Azure.

The storage setup in data centers across the network remains on premises due to data sovereignty regulations  and cost savings compared with cloud storage.

"Everyone ran to the cloud … then everyone went, 'Nope, too expensive,'" Sayles said. "Our directors took a really intelligent [pace] on moving to the cloud."

Unlike many enterprise IT departments, St. Luke's doesn't use tape as a medium for archiving. Instead, the company uses flash arrays from Pure Storage for fast access to important data, with hard disk drive storage arrays from NetApp and Qumulo.

This setup enables St. Luke's teams of nurses, doctors and other healthcare employees to access files and data quickly. Delays due to prior tiering and storage access configurations had resulted in complaints, but keeping that high level of accessibility has created its own set of headaches.

If I have a nurse up on the sixth floor, her files can't disappear. Even if she hasn't accessed it in five years, she still needs to be able to access it.
Brett SaylesSystems administrator, St. Luke's Health System

Unstructured data, such as Microsoft Office documents or spreadsheets generated by employees, can go untouched for years. Enabling IT to differentiate between the unnecessary and the vital without pulling aside every employee and file becomes a challenge.

"Probably the majority of that hasn't been touched in five to seven years," he said. "We have a ton of data that's just out there. If I'm going to move the data around to lower tiers of storage, it can't be visible to the users. If I have a nurse up on the sixth floor, her files can't disappear. Even if she hasn't accessed it in five years, she still needs to be able to access it."

Under the digital knife

If deleting data outright was off the table, finding a way to control and tier that data invisibly to users became Sayles' next priority.

He and the rest of the IT infrastructure team chose the Komprise Intelligent Data Management software after closely considering it and StrongBox Data Solutions' StrongLink software. Komprise Intelligent Data Management, the company's primary product, provides NAS and object data analytics, tagging capabilities and tools to keep data tiered in colder storage readily available.

Sayles said StrongLink offered a more complex and powerful set of capabilities using AI and automation tools. StrongLink enables users to create polices on where to store the data, a feature that almost sold Sayles and his team on the software. But issues that arose during two separate proof-of-concepts suggested the feature was still immature and made the team reconsider.

Concerns about data access alongside the issue of costs led Sayles and his team to Komprise. Although less feature-rich, Komprise tools enabled his team to tag, sort and tier data while following St. Luke's data retention policies, and the companies' terms were reasonable, Sayles said.

More important was Komprise's use of symbolic links, called symlinks. They create file-system objects that point to another file or folder, and let employees continue working as though their data remained entirely in place.

Komprise's data management software can work across heterogenous storage environments and over proprietary vendor storage, according to Dave Raffo, an analyst at Evaluator Group. Many long-lasting enterprises are in a similar situation as St. Luke's and need to manage a variety of storage systems.

"A big part of Komprise's value is it works across different vendors' storage," Raffo said. "A customer can use the one product for archiving and data management, whether the data is on-prem or in the cloud."

"That solves the problem of that nurse on the sixth floor," he said. "She'll always see her file in there [and] we can move it off to the lowest tier of storage we have."

Syscall me in the morning

Earlier this month, Komprise introduced new features to its software's Deep Analytics Actions, including a new capability for system administrators to appoint a handful of Komprise power users. This designation gives these individuals read-only access to Komprise tools and lets them tag, sort and prepare data for future actions like deletion, analytics ingestion and tiering.

Sayles said he expects to eventually take advantage of the feature, likely appointing a handful of employees in the business departments to monitor unstructured data and make sure retention protocols are enforced. Even better, he added, is that it's a duty that won't entirely fall to him and his team.

New medical imaging technologies and improvements could generate upwards of 1 TB of data per month, Sayles estimated, meaning keeping unstructured data in check is only going to grow in importance for the organization.

"It's really going to drive what we purchase and what we do," he said. "If Komprise is crawling one of the [business department's] data shares, that could be really handy for them. It's going to be helpful for me to give them read-only access to it and not worry they're going [to tamper with the data]."

Tim McCarthy is a journalist living on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He covers cloud and data storage news for TechTarget Editorial.

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