Storage area networks ease data-sharing bottlenecks in hospital environments

April 19, 2000

SAN vendors partner with PACS, HIS/RIS firmsWhile much attention has been focused recently on the growing interest in PC-based enterprise-wide image distribution, high-endnetwork architectures are

SAN vendors partner with PACS, HIS/RIS firms

While much attention has been focused recently on the growing interest in PC-based enterprise-wide image distribution, high-endnetwork architectures are helping to improve workflow within the radiology department and ease bandwidth burdens throughout therest of the hospital. Known as storage area networks (SANs), these fibre channel pipelines facilitate high-speed transfer and sharingof medical images and related data without bogging down existing hospital network infrastructures.

SANs are not new, having been used for the last several years in the audio-visual, financial, and other industries with large-volumehigh-bandwidth needs. But so far they have not found their footing in healthcare. However, the increasing integration of PACS andHIS/RIS products is driving interest in SANs because a SAN is designed to take large image files off the main hospital network andput them on their own dedicated (but integrated) pipeline, thereby freeing up bandwidth and speeding the transmission of relatedpatient data. In addition, the growing desire for large groups of users to share diagnostic data is pushing the need for extremely highspeed connections that can support a number of multimodality diagnostic workstations and provide near-real-time access to thePACS.

Generally speaking, a SAN is a high-speed, special-purpose network or subnetwork that interconnects different kinds of data storagedevices with associated data servers. SANs work in conjunction with fibre channel technology to form a dedicated server-to-storagecommunications link that operates on the back end of a server, independent of the local area network. In this way, users can cutstorage costs and ease storage management complexity by centralizing storage in one place.

"In a SAN, images can go right from the RAID to the workstation on a separate pipeline, rather than through the server," said MattLong, vice president of marketing for Cemax-Icon, a subsidiary of Kodak located in Fremont, CA. "Each workstation is directlyconnected to that RAID, which removes any hospital network or bandwidth issues."

Cemax maintains that it is the only PACS vendor SAN-enabling its PACS products; the company installed its first SAN product inNovember 1998 and now claims 25 to 30 installed systems, primarily in larger hospitals and medical centers. Cemax is so confident ofthe future of SANs in medical imaging that it is now SAN-enabling all of its PACS products, according to Long.

One reason for this optimism is the ongoing development and standardization of fibre channel architectures. The refinement of thistechnology has been critical in making SANs reliable enough to handle the high-bandwidth requirements of radiology departments,particularly for video applications such as echocardiograms and fetal ultrasound. Fibre channel technology offers many advantagesover other networking architectures, including the fastest high-bandwidth data transfer speeds (80 to 100 megabytes per second),universal access to all imaging modalities from all workstations, very high fault tolerance and data integrity, and ease of integration.

Rorke Data, an OEM supplier of fibre channel, RAID, and SAN technologies for 15 years, has been instrumental in helping to standardize fibre channel architectures but has had limited success selling this technology to the healthcare sector. It appears, however, that the company's perseverance is paying off at last.

"In the medical field, we have just begun to see the first opportunities roll around in the last six to nine months, but we see fibrechannel SANs as a major high-end business," said Tim Hanscom, vice president of the medical division of Rorke Data in Eden Prairie,MN.

Rorke already has an OEM relationship with Konica Medical to incorporate its SAN-connected fibre channel RAID devices intoKonica's PACS and has also seen interest from Agfa and Fuji for similar applications. But Rorke, which is in the process of beingacquired by Bell Microproducts, actually sees even more potential for SANs in the medical market through OEM partnerships withHIS and RIS vendors looking to add a broad bandwidth imaging pipeline to their information systems.

"Healthcare providers need to get more productivity out of the dollars they are spending," Hanscom said. "And we have proven overand over in our other vertical markets that you can gain a 30% improvement in productivity in captive environments such as ahospital."

Still, there are limitations to current SAN technology that are relevant to their use in the healthcare environment. In particular, a lackof interoperability remains between SAN fiber networks from different vendors, and software utilities shipped with SAN hardwareare restricted to managing a single vendor's SAN components. Standardization efforts are under way; at this point, however, mixingfibre channel switches from multiple vendors is not possible.

But new software appliances just entering the market that enhance the workflow capabilities inherent in SANs and ease installationand scalability of these networks should overcome many of these obstacles and make the SAN concept even more attractive toradiologists and hospital CIOs. For example, DataDirect Networks, a developer of SAN infrastructure products that supplies itsRAID storage products (which come with a fibre channel attachment) to Cemax, has developed DataDirector, an intelligent networkinfrastructure device that integrates several key SAN components into a scalable "plug and play" appliance, making it easier forhospitals to build and manage a SAN.

Chatsworth, CA-based DataDirect has been beta testing DataDirector with several strategic partners, including Cemax, which testedthe DataDirector in conjunction with its SAN-enabled PACS products. The company expects to launch the DataDirector as acommercial product by midyear.

© 2000 Miller Freeman, Inc., a United News & Media company.