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Updated: December 22, 2010 18:30 IST

Tackling the data monster

Sandeep K. Dutta
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Sandeep K. Dutta
Sandeep K. Dutta

The world's data already exceeds available storage space, and demand for storage capacity will continue to grow at an annual growth rate of over 43 per cent in the next three years

Imagine if your doctor could give you test results in minutes rather than days or weeks. Technology could make it possible, but only if the healthcare industry acknowledges it has a big problem. A data problem.

Every day, vast networks of physicians, specialists, patients, pharmacies, insurers and hospitals exchange millions of claims, forms, diagnoses, images, prescriptions, referrals and medical research. Today, that information — say the MRI on your old football injury — is increasingly digitised. But much remains paper-based.

More than $850 billion is wasted each year on duplicate lab tests, preventable conditions and inefficient paper-based systems, according to a recent Thomson Reuters report. The benefits of rapid, electronic sharing of medical records are so significant that the Obama administration allocated $36 billion in federal stimulus money to hasten adoption of an electronic infrastructure needed to control costs and improve service delivery.

As the healthcare industry moves from paper to electronic medical record-keeping, a crucial need has become evident: How to store and manage all those ones and zeros.

Flood of data

And healthcare is not alone. The world is drowning in data. Soon, it's estimated there will be 1 trillion Internet-connected devices in the world. Every day, 15 petabytes of new information is generated across the globe. This year the amount of digital information generated is expected to reach 988 exabytes — equivalent to the amount of information if books were stacked from the Sun to Pluto and back.

The research firm IDC says that the world's data already exceeds available storage space — and demand for storage capacity will continue to grow at a compound annual growth rate of over 43 per cent in the next three years. The nature of data is changing — from ‘structured' forms such as numbers to ‘unstructured' information such as video, e-mail and pictures.

Other affected industries include media and entertainment. Between 2009 and 2015, that industry will see about 10 times increase in the required digital storage capacity per year, according to a recent study by Coughlin Associates. The media industry captures, transports, ingests, processes and archives many petabytes of video, audio and images annually.

Inexpensive

Until now, the only way to capture and process digital content for growing amounts of data was through the use of videotape cassettes and different removable media — a slow and expensive process. The new method revolves around simple, inexpensive ways to manage the large archives created by this class of information. That requires better ways to store data, prioritise it and eliminate redundancies.

The good news is these technologies exist and are getting more sophisticated. Companies in every industry now have the ability to compress or shrink data, thus reducing the need for expensive physical storage space. They must start relying on smarter information storage systems that can handle all of this information and manage it intelligently. Take healthcare, for example. Various analyst reports peg the India healthcare IT market at over $ 200 m by the end of 2010. Healthcare providers are beginning to take advantage of new services and technology to eliminate duplicate records, routing the most urgent records to one place for rapid access and analysis, while placing other records in a more cost-effective medium. This can help them reduce the time required to access and restore data, cut the window for responding to requests from hours to minutes, and reduced physical storage of records by more than 90 per cent. The most urgent healthcare records can be sent to rapid, solid-state storage mechanisms (the same technology used in the iPod) while sending other information (such as that needed to be stowed away under government regulations) to more cost-effective tape storage.

As healthcare providers embrace these innovations, you may no longer have to wait long for those lab test results. And the bill may be lower. Just imagine the same scenario across a range of industries — from media and entertainment, to retail and financial services — and you can see the possibilities for new services that can improve our quality of life.

(The writer is Vice-President, Storage, Systems and Technology Group, IBM India/SA)

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