The role of flash storage in health care

It could well be the tenth foundational pillar that Digital India will need

Updated: Sep 22, 2016 02:23:42 PM UTC

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Imaging data (both clinical and non-clinical) makes up about 45% of this data volume in the healthcare industry and hence needs to be effectively managed ( Photo: Shutterstock)

Today, more than ever, technology is powering all areas of health care, from research and development of drugs, medical equipment and techniques, to medical devices, to hospital operations and finally patient care. High performing and robust technology is critical in health care; be it data crunching for cutting-edge medical research that is sprinting to cure the incurable, medical systems that are processing images for a life-saving diagnosis, or medical teams scrambling to administer to the critically ill.

Advancements in network bandwidth and computing power have considerably increased the power and speed of systems over the past two decades, but storage IO has always been the bottleneck. However, in the past decade, flash technology has demonstrated impressive improvements in the performance-intensive read/write functions. Given the fact that flash-based SSD performance has improved by 400-500% in less than a decade (compared to a meagre 13 percent performance improvement in HDD) makes it the preferred choice of storage for mission-critical enterprise systems.

The health care industry is certainly seeing the performance benefits of flash in their data intensive and high-performance systems. As the industry moves steadily towards digitisation, hospitals and other health care providers have seen an exponential increase in the amount of data that they are responsible for processing and maintaining. In North America, for example, health care data more than quadrupled from 3 million terabytes (TB) to 14 million TB between 2010 and 2015, and will continue to grow a rate of 35 percent per year.

This data takes various forms: Electronic patient records which capture the entire chronological medical history, byte-heavy medical images (CT scans, X-Rays, MRIs), non-clinical imaging (scanned documents like bills, invoices, etc), general and administrative data, research data, etc. This is in addition to the data that flows from the many medical devices in a hospital during the daily course of operations. Imaging data (both clinical and non-clinical) makes up about 45 percent of this data volume.

All these various types of data need to be effectively managed, while also complying with the prevailing medical and patient care laws related to security, privacy and data retention. In other words, intelligent and high performance storage is the need of the hour, because more than 20% of a health care IT budget is spent on storage. Flash storage fulfils this need, providing a variety of configurations that can be fitted together for a high performing yet cost effective tiered storage solution.

For instance, the actively accessed data can be stored and managed in a tier served by fastest (and therefore more expensive) SSD offerings to provide high IO performance. The older or archived data can be similarly partitioned into different tiers based on frequency of access, with robust and more cost effective options that can preserve that data in a secure and confidential manner. Given the advantages of flash memory over traditional hard drives in terms of choice, density, power and cooling requirements, etc, the judicious and extensive use of flash memory options can help health care organisations get the most out of their IT budgets.

Here in India, flash technology is of immediate relevance, and aligns very well with the current government’s drive towards digitisation and data-driven efficiencies. The Digital India initiative aims to use technology to provide governance and citizen services (including education and health care) to all, including the underserved in rural and remote areas. The programme is built on nine pillars, including broadband highways, universal connectivity, eservices, etc, to help provide the digital infrastructure to achieve its lofty goals.

Health care in India today is chaotic and contradictory; urban areas have well-staffed and high-tech facilities with super specialisations, but a large swathe of the population outside of the urban areas is poorly served. The sector is ripe for sweeping improvements that technology and digitisation can provide and help bridge this divide. Telemedicine, for example, allows doctors in urban area to help provide care to distant patients via video conferencing. Electronic health records are replacing disorganised and messy paper – a move that will help further consolidate and streamline patient care and reduce errors. These technology-driven solutions have a common element - large amounts of data in various forms. So as health care becomes mobile- and data-driven, fast and efficient storage that keeps pace with these advances is critical.

The push for digitisation means that India will soon surpass the West in the demand for storage, if it is to serve a population of over a billion. We have the opportunity to plan and manage this growth from the beginning, so we are well prepared to process and secure the deluge of data that will result from this mammoth digital endeavour. As cloud-based and hybrid solutions take shape to service both Digital India projects in general and the health care sector in particular, flash memory will feature prominently. The flash industry continues to innovate at a rapid pace keeping in mind requirements from the major verticals (particularly health care), and provides cutting-edge and high performance storage tailored for different uses as well as the software to easily manage the complexity across the network.

So, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that flash memory could well be the tenth foundational pillar that Digital India will need to get off to a sound start.

This article expresses the views of the author and not necessarily that of his employer.

- By Vivek Tyagi, Director for India business development, SanDisk Commercial sales and Support at Western Digital Corporation

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