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How Object Storage is Solving the Healthcare Data Explosion

Object-based storage architectures can be scaled out and managed simply by adding additional nodes.

4 Min Read
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Matt VanderZwaag is Director of Product Development at US Signal.

The countless filing cabinets housing sensitive medical records that anyone could get their hands on can no longer be found in abundance at most hospitals. These days, with the rise in digitalization, hospitals are tapping technology to store their zettabytes of unstructured data in more secure, efficient ways.

Some challenges, however, remain. Storing unprecedented amounts of data is complex and often expensive. To complicate things even more, healthcare organizations also must adhere to stringent regulatory requirements regarding data privacy and security protocols, including how long the data must be retained and how quickly it can be accessed. Nonetheless, a surprisingly simple, cost-effective solution does exist: object storage.

What is Object Storage?

Unlike traditional storage systems that organize data in files or blocks, object storage works with units of storage called objects. Objects are stored in buckets in a flat address space called a storage pool. When the object is stored, an ID is created for it, so it can be located in the pool.

The objects aren’t restricted by a hierarchical file structure, so the number of object IDs can be increased for almost limitless scalability. Applications can quickly retrieve the right data through the object’s ID or by searching for the metadata in the object using an HTTP-based REST application programming interface (API).

Every time an object changes, it is stored as a new object to prevent corruption through simultaneous changes. Object storage also employs erasure coding to help maintain data integrity. Similar to the way RAID works at the disk drive level, object storage restores lost or corrupted data by using redundant chunks.

Objects are also protected, because multiple copies of data are stored over a distributed system. If a node fails, the data can still be made available, which addresses common issues, including drive failures, bit-rot, server and failures and power outages.  

The Use of Object Storage in Healthcare

Object storage has emerged as a tool for the healthcare industry for a number of reasons, including:

Data Protection, HIPAA Compliance 

The HIPAA Privacy Rule requires covered entities — which includes most healthcare organizations — to apply appropriate administrative, technical and physical safeguards to protect the privacy of protected health information (PHI) for whatever period the data is retained. Object storage helps on the storage side by providing built-in security, resilient replication and erasure coding. And if the object storage solution is HIPAA-compliant — all the better. 

Data Retention and Access

While the HIPAA Privacy Rule doesn’t cover data retention requirements for medical records, state laws do. Patient records, clinical trial data and other types of healthcare-related information often must be retained for years. They also must be secure, searchable and accessible.

Those types of data typically do not require low latency or high performance, but do need high resilience and durability against disk, node or site failures, and bit rot. That’s what object storage provides.

The data may not be needed often but with object storage, it can be accessed any time and from anywhere — as long as there is an internet connection. It is also easy to search and locate data with object storage simply by using the object’s ID or by querying the metadata in the object using an HTTP-based REST API.

Another benefit to healthcare organizations is that they can conduct searches that return a set of files that meet specific criteria. For example, a typical X-ray stored as a file would have limited metadata associated with it beyond a name and the date it was created. Stored as an object, however, the X-ray could have rich metadata information such as the body area X-rayed, the injury type, the injury cause, the gender and age of the patient, etc. This makes it extremely useful and easy for users, such as physicians, to quickly retrieve specific information.

Scalability and Large File Sizes

Healthcare information often includes large data sets or large size files, such as videos, X-rays and electronic health records. Again, object storage can take it on because it has native support for large data sets. It also has near infinite scaling capabilities. Object-based storage architectures can be scaled out and managed simply by adding additional nodes. The flat name space organization of the data, in combination with its expandable metadata functionality, facilitate this ease of use.

Cost Effectiveness

Object storage is also extremely cost-effective, a big plus for budget-conscious healthcare organizations. Many vendors offer it with “pay-as-you-go pricing,” so you only pay for what you use.

As the healthcare industry continues to store zettabytes of data, many organizations will continue to turn to object storage as a simple, cost-effective, scalable solution to fit their needs.

Opinions expressed in the article above do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Data Center Knowledge and Informa.

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