​Storage collaboration allowing medical researchers to redirect their funding

How one CTO's vision brought three medical research institutes together to share storage costs and refocus their funding on helping the community.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

In Australia, there are approximately 55 medical research institutes that offer specialised treatment, with many funded philanthropically and from grants awarded by both federal and state governments.

With each institute paying scientists and researchers, clinicians, medical professionals, and other staff, technology and data storage is often a cost on a balance sheet that many organisations have to keep down while also being expected to innovate at speed.

About seven years ago, Ian Briggs, then-general manager of IT at Victoria-based Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, looked at the predicted trends in both the medical and tech industries, and realised that as the emerging equipment would soon be producing gigabytes of data, he needed the ability to store it within his facility.

Having been with Baker for about 12 years, Briggs remembered a time when the storage levels were a mere 100GB, telling ZDNet the data produced from equipment such as PET Scanners and MRIs, as well as the data output from Genomic Sequencing and Microbiome Networks, has "basically exploded" since.

In response, Briggs purchased Dell EMC Isilon scale-out storage equipment in an effort to implement something that was expandable enough to quickly on-board new scientists to the system.

He said Baker shortly realised it had the capacity to add new pieces of equipment and added an MRI machine to its facility, which in itself generates terabytes of data with every scan.

Two-or-so years ago, Briggs approached neighbouring virology and communicable disease research centre Burnet Institute to see what both could share in terms of IT.

He was then contacted by the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) -- located approximately seven kilometres away from both Baker and Burnet -- asking Briggs to manage its IT as well.

After determining the storage requirements of the three separate entities, and with the new title of CTO, Briggs finalised the IT amalgamation nine months ago by setting up a large storage cluster that covers all institutes.

"With medical research, every dollar is really important and people don't want to see the money going into the operational side of the business, they want it to go into the science, so it's imperative to us to really try and drive our own costs down," Briggs told ZDNet.

"We also share the warranty which is a big part of the cost of the equipment. So instead of each one paying three times, we have all three of us paying once.

"What we've done is unique in that we've set up a multi-tenanted system and I don't think anyone else in medical research has done that yet."

According to Briggs, each institute has saved approximately AU$250,000-AU$300,000 each, just by combing storage costs, which he said can now be spent on six or seven science-based jobs or a piece of medical equipment.

"It translates into an outcome and that's been a driving force for all of this -- to make outcomes and reduce cost," he explained.

With the success of the storage union, Briggs has received a lot of interest from other institutes both in Victoria and the rest of the country.

"What I've been trying to do -- and somewhat successfully -- is talk to the other MRIs in Australia about the idea," he explained.

"I've had lots of interest, but I think one of the challenges is the equipment cycle, so people don't always align, and a lot have said, 'We'll give you a call in 18 months' -- I think over time we'll grow.

"I think selling that story from Baker to Burnet and then CERA -- they've been able to see the benefits of it."

Briggs said another institute in Melbourne is already slated to join the cluster soon.

Baker recently took on a new researcher who requested 300TB of storage; considering the three facilities had a total of 500TB, Briggs had to add more.

The addition of two new nodes Briggs simply plugged in and switched on gave the facilities higher utilisation rates across the cluster, going from approximately 73 percent utilisation from each node to approximately 93 percent.

"So all of a sudden we've got more storage space for everyone -- and this will continue to move and grow and develop outwards," he said.

When touching on the concept of cross-institute collaboration, the CTO said with the tech already in place, it wouldn't be difficult to set up another cluster that is dedicated purely to inter-agency research work.

"We've started talking to a couple of other heart institutes about doing this and I think that's where it can grow to," he said.

"I think once you start bringing the data into one location that everybody can access, you're really starting to drive towards those outcomes.

"That's always been my vision and I think we're a few steps down the road toward that."

Baker employs end-to-end Dell EMC equipment, such as desktops and laptops, high performance computing, where the organisation uses Dell Poweredge servers, as well as Dell EMC VNX for block storage and Isilon for file storage, with Baker now on its third iteration of Isilon.

Disclosure: Asha Barbaschow travelled to Dell EMC World as a guest of Dell EMC.

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