August 4, 2010
Featured Article
Disaster recovery made easy

By storing individual changes throughout the day, not just the end-state of data, the Continuous Data Protection (CDP) functionality built into EchoStream can "dial back" data to any point in time.

By Judy Smith

As healthcare organizations shift from paper to electronic records, continuous system and data availability is essential to maintain high-quality patient care and foster the effective administration of facilities. Not so long ago, most healthcare data originated on paper or another physical medium. Back then, organizations often retained their documents even after the data on them was entered into an online database. This enabled them to recover destroyed electronic data manually from the source documents if necessary. Although it was a burdensome, lengthy process that every organization would much prefer to avoid, at least it was possible.

Now, times have changed. In many cases, medical and administrative information never really exists in physical form. Instead, it is created and stored solely electronically, eliminating the option to manually recover from source documents. It is in this environment that the need for data security and protection is more important than ever before, particularly in an industry like healthcare where HIPAA regulations require the protection of data.

Tape backups: not the ideal solution

Because systems fail infrequently and disasters almost never occur, many people are not fully cognizant of the potential for data loss and system unavailability. There is a common misconception that, as long as data is backed up nightly to tapes that are shipped off-site, operations are fully protected.

That is not the case, because tape-based backups suffer from several deficiencies. For one, lengthy recovery times can result in extensive downtime after databases are destroyed. Furthermore, if online data is lost, some of it may be unrecoverable if tape-based backups are the only recovery option.

Backup tapes are typically created only once every 24 hours, usually at night. Data that is added or updated during the day is not stored on any backup tapes until the following night. If a disaster destroys the online databases and any associated onsite journals, that day's data might be unrecoverable.

Timing is not the only problem with tape backups. The threat is even greater than that. Backup tapes are often not shipped offsite until sometime the next day. If a disaster strikes while the most recent tape is still in the data center, it might be destroyed along with the online data. In that case, two days' worth of data may be lost. Additionally, remember that tape is a more fallible medium than a disk. If the most recent backup tape is unreadable when it is required, that too will result in the loss of an additional full day's worth of data.

In today's electronic environment, it is essential to have a solution that couples high availability with a disaster recovery technology that is much more robust than traditional tape-based backups. The health and lives of patients may depend on it.

The need for real-time replication of all data

One organization that understands this need and has implemented such a system is The Jackson Clinic Professional Association. Established in 1950 by five medical and surgical specialists, The Jackson Clinic now brings together the expertise of more than 130 physicians in 25 specialties and sub-specialties to serve patients in nine locations across western Tennessee.

The Jackson Clinic employs state-of-the-art healthcare information technologies. All patient medical records, including chart information, x-rays, MRI images and appointments, are stored digitally. This information no longer has to be distributed in physical form, which brings the risk of loss along the way. Instead, as soon as it becomes available, all patient medical data is immediately accessible by any personnel who need it and are authorized to see it - all with a few clicks of a keyboard and mouse.

While electronic records streamline the flow of vital medical and administrative information and eliminate the possibility of misplaced documents and images, they also need to be completely protected against any loss. There is, after all, no paper backup.

The Jackson Clinic met this challenge by creating a sophisticated, highly available disaster recovery environment using EchoStream for AIX. With this technology in place, The Jackson Clinic transparently maintains a real-time replica of all critical data on a second server. Whenever necessary, data can be recovered quickly from this second environment.

Continuous data protection

When considering data protection issues, most organizations overlook another common threat to their information, one that cannot be overcome using either tape-based backups or traditional real-time replication. The problem is that both tape-based backups and traditional replication solutions allow for data recovery solely to a single point in time. Tape-based backups allow data to be recovered only to its state when the tape was created, which is typically sometime during the previous night. With traditional replication, which maintains a real-time replica of all data, one can recover information to its state at the point of failure, but recovery to a previous state is impossible.

A further risk arises because not all threats to data integrity halt systems. For example, if an operator accidentally deletes a critical file or a virus corrupts some data records, healthcare applications and business systems might still keep running. In fact, if replication software does its job, it will immediately replicate that deletion or corruption to the backup system, corrupting it in the same manner. Recovering the data from the previous night's backup tapes is a possibility, provided the backup doesn't already include the corruption or deletion. However, any such recovery would not restore updates applied to the data after the tape backup was created.

To view a quick video demonstration of the Continuous Data Protection technology with "dial-back" disaster recovery to any change made throughout the day, please click the image above.

The Jackson Clinic overcame this vulnerability with the Continuous Data Protection (CDP) functionality built into EchoStream. CDP augments a traditional replication solution by not just creating a replica of data, but by also storing copies of individual changes made to that data throughout the day. By storing individual changes, not just the end-state of data, CDP can "dial back" data to any point in time. In this way, it works like a system-wide "undo" facility.

High availability/disaster recovery (HA/DR): a strategic necessity

A healthcare organization's mission is to provide quality patient care. Integrating clinical practice, state-of-the-art technology and research plays an important role in fulfilling this mission. Moreover, paperless electronic medical records (EMR) systems help healthcare providers to streamline procedures, reduce errors and lower costs, but the elimination of physical documents demands the deployment of sophisticated high-availability and disaster recovery technologies to not just fulfill HIPAA's regulations but also to deliver a safe and secure environment that all stakeholders - regulators, medical practitioners, administrators, staff, patients and family members - want and expect. Lives depend on it.

About the author

Judy Smith is senior product marketing manager, Vision Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based technology company that specializes in state-of-the-art data recovery systems. For more information on Vision Solutions, click here.


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