Evaluating a hybrid approach to offsite data storage

Topics: Healthcare IT Management

One of the most fundamental strategies for protecting an organization’s data is to store copies of the data off-site. Healthcare organizations have two main options – tape and cloud.

The best data protection solution often leverages a combination of tape and cloud storage.

Healthcare organizations create mind-boggling amounts of data. Managing these growing volumes of data can be a daunting task. Backup tapes and other archived media must be moved, stored and accessed throughout their lifecycle in compliance with HIPAA privacy and security regulations. These regulations have been made even more stringent under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Turning these storage requirements into reality can be a challenge. 

HIPAA part 164.308 (7) (ii) (A) states that healthcare organizations must “Establish and implement procedures to create and maintain retrievable exact copies of electronic protected health records.” However, HIPAA does not provide any guidance for meeting this requirement. As such, healthcare organizations must develop and implement a defensible data protection plan that satisfies the HIPAA requirements, while also ensuring that the organization’s own business needs are met for data protection and retention.

Offsite data storage options

One of the most fundamental strategies for protecting an organization’s data is to store copies of the data off-site. As Hurricane Sandy recently demonstrated, it is critically important to separate data from a datacenter so that a copy of the data remains intact, even in the event that the organization’s primary datacenter is severely impacted.

When it comes to offsite data storage, healthcare organizations have two main options – tape and cloud. Cloud storage providers and some industry analysts have been all too quick to proclaim “tape is dead.” In spite of these overzealous statements however, tape is in the midst of a resurgence, and remains a very viable storage medium. There are advantages and disadvantages to using tapes, just as there are pros and cons associated with cloud storage. The best data protection solution often leverages a combination of tape and cloud storage.

Cloud-based storage

One of the primary advantages to storing your archives and backups in the cloud is the degree of separation between your datacenter and cloud service provider. Natural disasters often impact large geographical areas, so the best way to protect your data is to make sure that a copy is stored in a location that is geographically separated. With cloud-based storage solutions, your data could be stored hundreds or even thousands of miles away from your primary datacenter.

Another advantage to using cloud storage is that cloud storage is online, which means that the data remains online. This is particularly nice for archive data because offline archives are inaccessible unless someone locates and physically mounts the media containing the data that is needed. In contrast, cloud-based archives can remain as readily accessible as if they were stored in an on-premise server.

Although storing data in the cloud is currently the trendy thing to do, it might not always be the only thing to do. There are some disadvantages to relying upon cloud storage exclusively, including costs and performance. Most of the cloud storage providers charge their customers a monthly fee based on the amount of storage space that is being consumed.  Cloud storage involves ongoing costs that are incurred for as long as the data exists, so without appropriate storage retention policies, these costs can grow.

Performance can also be a deterrent to using cloud-based storage. The speed with which data can be transferred between your organization and the cloud is based on the amount of Internet bandwidth that you are willing to use. Furthermore, some cloud providers throttle their bandwidth, thus making transfers take longer than they otherwise would to complete.

The performance of cloud-based storage tends not to be a major issue for day-to-day operations, especially if the organization has a deduplication solution in place to compress data before it is transmitted to the cloud. However, operations involving the transfer of large amounts of data can be painfully slow. This is particularly true of the initial synchronization process or for large scale retrieval operations, such as might occur in response to a subpoena.

Tape-based storage

Just as there are advantages to storing data in the cloud, there are also advantages to storing your data on tape. First and foremost, tape has been proven to be a reliable media. Tape-based storage has been in use for decades and the underlying technology has been perfected and is still considered a critical resource for data storage.  As a matter of fact, a Gartner Group report[1]showed that tape is part of the primary backup methodology for 73% of the enterprises surveyed.  Additional research shows that the newest tape technologies deliver a lower cost of ownership, higher reliability and greater capacity, speed and ease of use over disk-based storage systems.

The cost per terabyte of storage also tends to be much lower for tape than for cloud storage. Cloud storage might initially be less expensive than the cost of tapes, but given the fact that cloud storage is an ongoing expense it can be more expensive in the long run – particularly if retention policies are not implemented. Tape is also easily portable and large amounts of data can be retrieved from tape much more quickly than it can be downloaded from the cloud.

One of the deterrents to using tape is that they have to be managed and stored, and often tapes are not stored in optimal conditions.  Many healthcare facilities don’t want to send their tapes offsite due to the sensitivity of the data.  Therefore, if their storage facility is not secure and properly climate controlled, there is risk to the data.  Healthcare organizations must also have a tested plan for retrieving a tape should the contents be needed, and storing in sub-optimal conditions puts them at risk.  With newer tape systems that include encryption technology, data is protected even if the tape is lost.

In today’s constantly changing healthcare environment, having a reliable backup strategy is critical. With the onslaught of BYOD, viruses and other constant threats to virtual data, it is crucial to include tape as a key part of your backup strategy, based on many factors, specifically its reliability. Using tape as a key part of your backup strategy provides greater protection than relying solely on virtual backup technologies that typically leave online, and frequently sensitive, data at risk.

Partner for a hybrid approach

So in a healthcare organization is it better to use tape or cloud storage? Often times the best solution is to use a hybrid approach that takes advantage of both technologies. For example, some organizations store their data in the cloud, but also maintain a tape-based copy as a second line of defense in case something was to happen.

Together, tape and cloud can address your most critical backup, recovery and archiving requirements.  Best practices include a strategy that balances the benefits of both by evaluating data access and recovery capabilities against the cost of providing them via each technology. It’s important to first understand your organization’s specific data and usage patterns before developing a custom strategy.  Most companies find that a mix of different offsite and online solutions brings the best results.  Which is why, understanding the precise makeup and use of your data is critical. 

Ultimately, the key is to make sure that your data is stored so that you will be able to access and recover your data at any time when needed.  The goal is to choose the best technologies to optimize the protection of your data with the access (SLAs to the business) and cost.  Of course, one layer of protection is usually not enough for most organizations. Today, it seems clear that embracing a hybrid approach by making strategic use of tape and cloud technologies together, provides the most comprehensive and secure solution for your healthcare organization’s offsite data protection.

An organization’s data is critical to its livelihood, so it’s important to partner with a company that understands the nuances of developing an integrated tape and cloud strategy, and can see it through to implementation.  As a world leader in information management services, Iron Mountain offers comprehensive cloud storage and tape vaulting services, and can guide your healthcare organization in developing a customized, unified approach to meet all of your company’s access, retention and cost considerations.  Iron Mountain can help you tackle backup, recovery and archiving requirements by deploying high-impact tape and cloud technologies for the greatest business benefit. 

Find out more about Iron Mountain Healthcare Solutions and how we can help you manage and protect your critical data. 

Do you have more questions about your current Health Information and Management strategy? Read additional Knowledge Center stories on this subject, or contact Iron Mountain’s consulting services team. You’ll be connected with a knowledgeable product and services specialist who can address your information management challenges.

Related News:

Healthcare Solutions: Five Steps to Optimal HIPAA Compliance

When Health Systems Merge, Smarter Healthcare Information Management Keeps the Peace

[1]“Organizations Leverage Hybrid Backup and Recovery to Take Advantage of Speed and Low Cost,” Gartner Research Note, Aug. 22, 2012.