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Hospital's diagnosis: Replace the backup system

A move from a manual backup process to a centralized one helped repair Northwest Hospital's backup speed and efficiency.

Northwest Hospital, a not-for-profit enterprise in Seattle, Wash., examined its aging, eight year-old data backup system and decided to take it off life support in 2001. The health care provider had relied on a CD tower and autonomous manual backup techniques to save 415 gigabytes (GB) of information stored on 80 servers, supporting 2,500 users.

"Because our data volume was growing at more than 50% per year, we had outgrown the system," says Matt Plitnik, a network administrator at the hospital. "We were having trouble completing backups on time and finding more and more errors after backup processes were completed."

The firm decided to move to a centralized backup system, based on network-attached storage (NAS) systems, a new tower. As a result of making the changes, the firm reduced its backup processing time by more than 50% and reduced the number of errors.

In the highly competitive health care industry, enterprises are constantly searching for such productivity improvements. Northwest Hospital, a 230-bed community hospital caters to local professionals, and has focused on delivering help for brain, breast and prostate cancers, neurological disorders and cardiology services. The hospital introduced the Gamma Knife radiosurgery to the Pacific Northwest in 1993.

However, state-of-the-art was not an appropriate term when describing the firm's backup system. The company relied on standalone backup tapes that technicians moved from server to server, a technique that was quite inefficient. Because the company had so much information, employees spent 60 hours per week ensuring redundant data was available. Sometimes, they wasted time waiting for one backup job to finish and occasionally failed to complete the process because they did not change a tape fast enough.

Often when the IT department was copying information, it was not available to users. Since hospitals operate 24/7, doctors, executives and nurses sometimes were unable to access critical data.

At the end of 2001, the hospital decided a change was needed. Migrating to a centralized, dedicated backup server would mean that the hospital could more efficiently use its tapes. Also, a central data management system would lower the number of errors occurring during the process, with information remaining online as technicians made copies.

So, Northwest Hospital then had to find the best product. "Rather than turn to everyone who makes a specific type of product, we work with only a few key vendors," says Plitnik. "This approach results in us getting better pricing, faster service, and more consistency from our suppliers."

The health care company runs a Windows environment: Windows NT on the desktop and NT and Windows 2000 on the servers. Consequently, the selection came down to two firms: HPQ and the winner, Sony. Cost was a key consideration, as Sony system's price came in at $35,000 less than the Compaq's. The products also had a small footprint, important since space is at a premium in the hospital.

In March 2002, the hospital installed two of Sony's FSV-M1 NAS devices, each with 480 GB capacity. One NAS appliance stores copies of information generated by the various servers, while the second unit contains additional static data files input by staff. A Sony AIT Library Lib162/A3 and Sony AIT-3 tapes are used to house the backup information, which is controlled by Backup Exec from Veritas. A Compaq DL360 server with Gigabit Ethernet card and dedicated SCSI adapter supports two daisy chained Sony Lib162/A3s, which run 18 backup jobs for 24 machines each.

Testing of the system proceeded quickly. "The NAS servers were up and online within 30 minutes," says Plitnik. The backup required more time because the IT department had to make sure all of the configurations were properly set. That installation was complete in June, and now the Sony system handles 95% of their Windows NT/2000 backup jobs.

The change produced many benefits, the first being reduced processing time. Rather than 60 hours of copying done on eight drives, the firm spends 27.5 hours on backup time using four drives. Since Northwest Hospital has fewer tape drives to manage, it reduced the number of system failures.

Management benefits include better use of personnel. The lead operator now changes tapes once a day (a process that takes five minutes), instead of three different operators changing tapes during their shifts (accounting for 90 minutes). Because the jobs run more efficiently, there are fewer off-hour calls to network administrators about backup failures. Since there wasn't enough time to backup every device previously, there were minor holes in the company's disaster recoverability plan, but that is no longer the case.

"We knew we had to upgrade our backup system, but the benefits we have gained have been a bit better than expected," concluded Northwest Hospital's Plitnik.

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For more information on Northwest Hospital, visit its Web site.

Additional information on Sony can be found here.


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