Putting life into storage

Storage management vendors have come up with a number of ways to help us manage the results of the data explosion. In many cases backups no longer take up bandwidth on the LAN, delta blocks rather than whole files can be saved, and online storage can be (to varying degrees) artfully managed with respect to quotas, file types, access and so forth. We are all working to help you guys, even me (for my especially tight-fisted readers, a few months back I even did a series of articles on how to reclaim disk space).

In addition, estimates of overall data growth across all areas of IT have been cut back a bit, which will make life a bit easier for many IT managers. Some may even have time to worry about their lives outside the IT world... for a brief while, anyway.

So go take a brief, but-well-deserved, rest.

Unless of course, you happen to be the IT manager of an institution in the life sciences industry. You'll be working late tonight.

Medical imaging, R&D and clinical development, the three major subcategories of the life sciences, are experiencing an annual growth in their digital data of more than 100%.

Why? Demands for higher quality health care have increased use of CT, X-ray and MRI devices. And that's not just more records to store. The media that those files represent are also much richer (and hence, larger) than they used to be. For example, imaging devices that recently gave 100 slices of output now provide 1,000 slices.

Furthermore, due to governmental mandates (and business necessities), audit trails must now be maintained for every bit of data, and for every event that affects it, throughout its lifecycle.

It's more than just a disk space issue, of course. The new applications are increasingly data-hungry. Worse, many not only require huge amounts of data, but must be fed that data at an alarming rate in order to keep their analyses running at optimal levels.

Of course, several companies offer products addressing the demands of digital media in life sciences. Unfortunately, these have been historically proprietary solutions, which offer you a fix for your problem at the often considerable expense of vendor lock-in. For some sites that may be fine; for many others, such vendor lock-in can be like the bite of a vampire.

A few vendors have begun to take an approach that relies on open systems and is standards-based. IBM, for example, packages its Linux-based xSeries servers with a parallel file system and high-end storage devices optimized for the needs of digital media. On the software side, Emageon (http://www.emageon.com ) captured market share by building-in high levels of functionality that flow digitized data out to most stakeholders with a medical enterprise in conformance with business demands and the recent governmental requirements such as HIPAA - and does it all by toeing the line in regard to industry and professional standards as well.

Systems addressing the requirements of medical imaging and clinical development, two key segments of life sciences IT, are unlikely ever to be cheap. On the other hand, the investment in such systems is invariably a key strategic corporate decision and very often is business-critical. As such, these are investments that will have long-term impact on the efficiency - and indeed, on the fundamental ability to do business - of the institutions involved.

Because of the long-term costs involved, it is likely that the IT organizations of such companies will begin to place increasing emphasis on the importance of standards-based applications and open systems when they qualify their vendors.

There is also a good chance that nonconformance to accepted life sciences standards such as DICOM, HL7 and IHE, or nonsupport of open systems, will immediately disqualify other vendors from even placing a bid.

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