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SAN helps write a lifesaving prescription

Minutes separate life and death at the CTRC in San Antonio. When a server went down, they had to make a drastic change.

To work effectively against cancer, radiation treatments have to be given on a very strict schedule. So, an hour of system downtime -- which can be just a minor annoyance in most business environments -- could be a matter of life and death at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center (CTRC) in San Antonio.

CTRC provides radiation treatments for eight patients every 10 minutes at its medical center. The eight linear accelerators that deliver patients' radiation doses are connected to a computerized record and verification system that keeps track of the proper dosage, as well as the location and duration of the treatments.

The computer system holds patient demographic and billing information, as well as oncology records, doctors' notes and images from MRI and other medical scanning devices. System data verifies radiation dosages, calculating the ratio of dosage to tumor size.

"If we're down 20 minutes, we're 16 patients behind," said Mike Luter, CTRC's chief technology officer.

A prolonged outage of the system can create a backlog that can make it impossible to treat every patient on the schedule. Sometimes, a patient's daily dosage has to be skipped, Luter said. Once a patient is on a set schedule, it's not advisable to change that schedule, because of the nature of radiation buildup in the body. "A missed radiation dose cannot be made up," Luter said.

That situation is stressful for already-anxious cancer patients, as well as the center's staff. "The patients are backing up, and it gets crowded," Luter said. "Everybody is on edge."

Luter was stressed out for years because any system downtime was prolonged by a direct-attached storage system that had no mirroring capabilities. If a server went down, it took an hour or two to reload storage data, Luter said.

Last year, Luter set a goal of recovering from any system failure within 10 minutes. To achieve that goal, he knew he had to be serious about changing his storage system.

After extensive research, Luter decided that storage area network (SAN) technology was at a point, price-wise, that would fit into CTRC's budget. He evaluated products from StorageTek, Compaq and EMC. He gave the nod to EMC.

"All three vendors have good technology, but EMC could give us a base system we could start with for the price our budget could handle," Luter said.

CTRC purchased two EMC Clariion FC4700 enterprise storage systems. One FC4700 was installed at CTRC's medical center and the other at the CTRC research center, 22 miles away. Each initially carried 1 TB of storage.

Luter planned to connect the two servers on a Fibre Channel network that would permit data from the medical center to be mirrored at the research center. Luter was familiar with FC networks, which are used for CTRC's VTP, VoIP, file share, e-mail and Internet applications.

Luter and his IT team quickly ran into problems with that plan. The cost of an FC connection between the EMC FC4700s was prohibitive. At $2,400 per system, the cost of the host bus adapters (HBAs) alone would stress his budget.

Luter needed a new option to make his original goal a reality, and San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc. came to the rescue. Cisco's SN 5428 routers would allow data on the medical center's EMC hard drive to be mirrored out to the research center's EMC storage network. This feat could be accomplished using existing tools: Microsoft Windows NT's standard mirroring functionality and Gigabit Ethernet NICs. Eliminating the need to buy FC HBAs and new software made the Cisco solution very budget-friendly, Luter said.

Cisco also offered a new iSCSI feature called Network Boot. This allows access to servers, both locally and remotely, directly from the storage array.

"Now we have redundancy," Luter said. The IT team's testing has shown that if any of the medical center's servers failed, records stored at the research center could be recovered in 10 minutes.

Luter will always push for greater speed, availability and reliability in his systems because all these attributes are needed to save lives. "We're fighting cancer," he said. "We have to be on the cutting edge."

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For more information on CTRC's Medical Center visit its Web site.

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