IBM targets health care market with grid computing

Big Blue unveils system that uses grid computing to store and retrieve medical images and other records

Hospitals have unique and challenging storage needs, as they are required to store every X-ray and medical record they create, and IBM is reaching out to that market with a system being unveiled Wednesday at a health care industry event.

IBM is using the concept of grid computing -- many computers linked together to share processing power -- to store and retrieve medical images and other records within a group of hospitals. It featured its Grid Medical Archive Solution (GMAS) at the American Telemedicine Association convention this week in Nashville, Tennessee.

GMAS combines IBM System x servers with Intel processors, its System Storage model EXP3000 and support from IBM Global Technology Storage Services. Although that package has been on the market for a while, it now also includes software from IBM partner Bycast, a provider of management software for grid environments.

Orlando Regional Healthcare, a hospital network in Florida spent $600,000 for a GMAS system this year for two data centers serving seven hospitals.

The storage management software was an important consideration, said Alex Veletsos, chief technology officer for Orlando Regional. Data sent to one data center is automatically copied to the other, but the software screens for corrupted files and prevents those from being copied.

"Usually when you do block level replication at the SAN (storage area network) you are replicating everything including corruption," Veletsos said. "This provides for replication without the possibility of corruption."

Orlando Regional paid about $600,000 for an IBM system with 50 terabytes of storage capacity, he said.

Hospitals have unique storage needs that are driving demand for grid storage, said Craig Butler, business line executive for IBM's storage archive business. Hospitals have to save image files of X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) scans. As the resolution of MRIs increases, so do the file sizes, said Butler. Doctors treating a patient in an emergency room need quick access to that patient's medical history to make a diagnosis.

Hospital economics also drives technology needs, said John Webster, principal IT advisor at the research firm Illuminata Inc.

As stand-alone hospitals are acquired by large corporate hospital groups, IT resources are often consolidated, said Webster. Even when hospitals remain independent, a group of them may pool IT resources to save money.

Although IBM promotes the total solution of all IBM hardware and services, it knows that it will be selling into heterogeneous systems, he said.

"I think that one of the selling points of this grid structure is that the software is kind enough, if you will, to allow you as a customer to wrap into your grid architecture legacy," Webster said. "You can't approach this as a rip-and-replace strategy."

IBM rivals like EMC and Hewlett-Packard also target the health care industry storage market. HP said its Medical Archiving Solution provides long-term digital storage of patient medical images. HP also partners with Bycast for grid management software, according to Bycast's Web site.

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