AdvanceMed Corp. Manages Business-Critical Storage Operations with Fujitsu

To a greater degree than most companies, the business success of Reston, Va.-based AdvanceMed is directly linked to the smooth operation of its storage infrastructure.

In an earlier column I promised to offer case studies from time to time based on input from end users of storage and storage management technology. This week, my thanks goes to Ken Hutchins at AdvanceMed for sharing with me (and you) his storage success story while we both attended a storage management conference in Boston.

To a greater degree than most companies, the business success of Reston, Va.-based AdvanceMed is directly linked to the smooth operation of its storage infrastructure. An application service provider for the healthcare industry, AdvanceMed creates custom data marts for its clients, then delivers the data via a secure, Web-facing, reporting portal.

According to Director of Technical Services Ken Hutchins, the business model of AdvanceMed makes storage management a core competency for the company. There’s a direct correlation between the success of his firm and the ability of his Technical Services organization to deliver the highly scaleable, highly available, and closely managed storage services that are required to meet client information needs.

To ensure that his data storage infrastructure is up to the task, Hutchins depends on storage resource management software from Fujitsu SOFTEK. Hutchins says the solution is providing the capability to provision storage in advance of demand and to optimize both storage and management personnel assets.

The Business of AdvanceMed
"We are unique from the other divisions of our parent company, DynCorp, in one respect," Hutchins observes. "AdvanceMed is DynCorp’s only commercial product and service provider."

DynCorp is well known as a government IT solutions provider, with significant presence in the Department of Defense. AdvanceMed, which became a separate Strategic Business Area in January 2001, targets commercial healthcare payer and provider organizations, plus state Medicare and federal agencies as customers for its decision support analysis services.

"We focus on measuring, monitoring and managing the business of providing healthcare services to reduce cost, increase quality and improve access," Hutchins says, adding that the typical customer provides healthcare services for up to 1.5 million "covered lives." The customer uses AdvanceMed to create a data warehouse, or data mart, using its administrative and clinical data to facilitate advanced analysis of treatment efficacy and cost.

Through a data-intensive process, AdvanceMed’s typical customer supplies about 20GB of "raw data" about procedures and/or patient claims. Hutchins says that the customer data typically arrives in the form of ASCII files. "Then AdvanceMed’s analytical tools are used to create a fact table and data mart that grows the data set to approximately 300GB."

After testing, the production data mart is moved over to a Web-facing data hosting service operated by AdvanceMed and secure access is provided to the client to both the data mart and a set of Cognos reporting tools that can be used to mine the data.

In the course of processing, customer data moves from a development environment to a testing environment and finally into a production environment. Once the data mart is finished, it is transferred to a hosting environment, according to Hutchins. Two storage area networks (SANs) provide all of the requisite storage services to support the process.

Managing the data each step of the way is a mission-critical activity for which AdvanceMed has harnessed the capabilities of Fujitsu SOFTEK storage resource management software, Hutchins says.

Infrastructure Details
According to the Director, one SAN is dedicated to the hosting environment at AdvanceMed. "It was our first SAN," Hutchins reports, "and features first generation Dell Clariion storage platforms attached to a Fibre Channel fabric via SCSI-to-Fibre Channel bridges. A Brocade Communications Systems switch is used to interconnect the repository of about 90 73GB Fibre Channel drives to five four-way Dell servers and an additional server running the Cognos reporting software."

A second SAN, deployed in March 2002, serves the development, testing and production environments. Says Hutchins, "This is a fifth generation SAN featuring Dell and EMC/Clariion storage totaling about 9TB of storage. It’s accessed by four eight-way Dell servers, two for development of the data mart and two for the production environment. Additionally, there are two testing servers, one demo production system, one Cognos development server, and one Cognos load-balancing server. Again, the systems and the storage platforms are connected by a Brocade switch."

The selection of Fujitsu SOFTEK to provide management of the infrastructure was driven by several factors, says Hutchins. "We are a new company and I have only been in this position with the company for about a year. The first thing I did after surveying the planned environment was to adjust earlier estimates and then go looking for a storage management solution."

He discovered Fujitsu SOFTEK shortly after initiating his search and concedes that he was so impressed by the demonstration of the software provided at a Chicago, Ill. trade show that he invited the company to his site to participate in the company’s early ship program. "We installed the software in a closed environment: We had just deployed the second SAN, so we had a clean system for testing."

Fujitsu SOFTEK lived up to its brochure, according to Hutchins, and over a one-month period Hutchins and his storage administrators rolled out the SRM package. "We got excellent support from Fujitsu SOFTEK. They provided two system engineers for about a month who helped us to deploy the software and provided hands on one-to-one and two-to-one training. They also supplied a customized guide to operations that was tailored to our specific environment."

Getting Control of Storage
Hutchins says the software began returning value immediately following installation in June. "Our product is very database driven, but the database management team did not have their data structured in an effective way. We were able to use SOFTEK to analyze their databases and determine where they were under- and over-utilizing their storage. Then we could provide specific recommendations for how they could manage their storage more effectively."

The product produced an immediate return on investment in the form of storage reclamation. He says that within the first three weeks of operation, the SOFTEK solution helped him "find" and reclaim 112GB of data that had not been accessed in two years. In the seventh week, analysis of the space consumed by temporary databases, duplicated data, and unneeded SQL space allocations enabled him to return an additional 400GB to productive use.

Overall, the solution enabled Hutchins to economize on storage acquisitions. "Prior to implementing SOFTEK, we were constantly moving storage around to make space. In some cases, we had spec’d out more storage than we needed to. With SOFTEK, we were able to make the best use of the resources we had. Plus, we had the ability to anticipate future needs and to get what we needed while the getting was good."

The Future is Bright
Hutchins says that he’s beginning to make use of "action sets" in the storage management software that allow him to automate storage grooming processes based on file size and type. "Right now, we can automatically alert our engineers when a file is growing too big, when disk space utilization exceeds certain thresholds, and when file types appear that don’t belong in the system. In the future, we may be able to automate many of the corrective actions as well."

Hutchins expects to be able to leverage the Fujitsu SOFTEK solution to address several burgeoning challenges. For one, he expects substantial growth in the number of clients whose data marts will be created and hosted by AdvanceMed.

"We expect to have 20 new clients by next year. Some will have data covering about 1.5 million ‘covered lives,’ but other clients—particularly those that represent the merger of two or three traditional clients—will need a data mart that covers the details of more than 8 million ‘lives.’ That will push the limits of our current Windows-server-based environment, so we are looking at new Sun servers to support these mega clients. The good news is that both our SANs and our storage management solution will be able to support the new Sun servers—as well as the new database software that we will need to deploy."

He adds that he is also looking at the virtualization module available from Fujitsu SOFTEK for use with its SRM tools. "We can foresee a time when it would be helpful to have a virtualization tool that will enable us to aggregate storage disks to create volumes that are tailored to each data mart. Virtualization may be just what we need over time."

Rising to the Challenge
With a growing client base and two network engineers and one policy development person, Hutchins is depending on Fujitsu SOFTEK to forestall the need to hire more personnel.

"We’re all being called upon to do more with less" he concludes, "and thanks to the SOFTEK solution, we should be able to do a good job of managing the storage of multiple customers with the staff we have."

Hutchins is also looking for the enhanced storage management capability enabled by SOFTEK to provide improved quality of service and reduced costs for AdvanceMed customers. "Application service providers are always looking for differentiators that will give them a market advantage. A well-managed storage infrastructure will produce practical advantages for AdvanceMed that can be passed along to our customers in the form of service quality and cost control."

Side note: This week marks the kick-off of the Network Storage University IP Storage "roadshow" for which I am delighted to be the keynote speaker. The show will travel to 10 cities over the next month or two, and I hope to see readers of this column in attendance at the free, half-day, educational event when it comes to your city. For more information, please visit www.networkstorageu.com.