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Information Infrastructure

From ON Magazine, Issue No. 1, 2010

By Jeff Nick

Jeff Nick
EMC Senior Vice President and CTO Jeff Nick talks about how cloud-based information sharing can be used to solve growing IT challenges in today's healthcare world. Photograph by Leah Fasten
Figuring out who you are, what you are, and how you are

June 4, 2010—In today’s world, more than ever before, companies and individuals are aware of their responsibility to conserve resources and minimize negative impacts on our global environment.

However, the role the IT industry plays in sustainability goes beyond energy conservation and elimination of waste. Our product is information processing. The efficiency and efficacy of IT translates not only into “doing more with less” but also yielding more value from the information we process.

Our digital information universe is exploding and conservatively should reach 2,500 billion gigabytes by 2012. Eighty-five percent of this information will be managed by corporations at some point in its lifetime. The IT industry must make constant strides to improve on IT efficiencies in the processing of information. EMC possesses key technologies to help manage this explosion. Virtualization, for instance, converges workloads onto fewer servers and storage systems, boosting utilization to as much as 80 percent.

Deduplication algorithms create links to original data rather than allowing repeated copying, providing an average 20x reduction in redundant data. And we have Flash: attractive because it increases I/O response, and its efficiency is quite impressive. Flash consumes 38 percent less power than spinning disks—about 98 percent less when measured per I/O request. Flash is green.

Finally, there’s information lifecycle management. It supports green IT by storing data on tiers, according to how the data is consumed. In healthcare, the MRI of a patient undergoing active diag­nosis must be available instantly, so it lives on a high-performance tier. When the acute-care phase concludes, the MRI can be moved to a less energy-hungry archival tier.

Economies of scale

Each of these technology advances improves the utility of information processing as it relates to resource consumption. That being said, there is a new dimension to sustainable IT emerging—focused on economies of massive scale—cloud computing. IT organizations deal not just with exploding data, but also infrastructure sprawl, identity and access-control challenges, phishing, service attacks, new regulations, and reduced budgets. Those realities bring us to cloud computing for sustainability.

Businesses are growing increasingly receptive to outsourcing certain processes to third-party experts in areas such as backup, recovery, and compliance monitoring. Rather than making huge capital expenditures to expand their data centers, these clients pay only for what they use. Cloud infrastructures contribute to sustainability in part because cloud service providers are able to host many clients concurrently. A shared resource infrastructure means greater economies of scale, improving on power and cooling efficiency in aggregate. For example, a service provider can flexibly virtualize servers at an even more extensive, meaningful level than is possible in one internal IT organization.

"The efficient, effective use of IT not only requires that we “do more with less” but also derive more value from the information we process."

Cloud computing augments data center processes without adding infrastructure support challenges. Cisco, EMC, VMware, IBM, HP, Google, Amazon,—all these IT providers are moving to enable service delivery via the cloud paradigm. Enterprises will take advantage of a common infrastructure and processes provided by a service provider at a greater economy of scale. The promise of cloud computing is to turn an IT infrastructure into a low-cost, efficient, shared, flexible service. That’s sustainable IT as a utility model.

Lessons from the time of cholera

Consumption of IT resources is a major issue, but so is the “production side” of the value IT delivers: namely, information. Data translates into information. Information morphs into knowledge. Knowledge equals power—the type of power that supports the sustainability of our planet and humanity.

In 1854, Dr. John Snow was a London physician when the city experienced yet another cholera outbreak. In those days, people believed “bad air” caused disease. Dr. Snow wasn’t convinced. He interviewed patients, collected data, and analyzed cholera incidents empirically. With this information, Dr. Snow created concentric circles mapping outbreak epicenters. He traced “ground zero” to a water pump in Soho. Its supply had been contaminated with cholera bacteria leaking from an adjacent cesspit. Explaining his techniques of data collection, monitoring, correlation, and analytics, Dr. Snow convinced authorities to remove that pump’s handle temporarily and halted that outbreak.

How does his story reveal the value of information processes today? Look at 21st-century healthcare. We have silos of digital information—from healthcare provider, to radiologist, to clinician, to researcher, to the HR department of a patient’s employer, to pharmaceutical companies, and beyond.

We can do better

They have information repositories that can’t be seamlessly connected because they exist in different formats, support different protocols, and have different record IDs. Given the information explosion and these obstacles to sharing across silos, it is increasingly challenging to replicate the data collection, correlation, and analysis Dr. Snow accomplished on his own in 1854.

In today’s healthcare world, three tasks are problematic. The first is figuring out who you are. You’re known by numerous identities: your name, birth certificate, medical insurance number, social security number, driver’s license, employee ID. No standard exists for applying your identifiers consistently across information stores and across organizations.

The second problem relates to what you are, informationally, as a patient. You are your insurance forms, doctors’ notes, prescriptions, diagnostic tests, and medical history: information that exists in many forms and repositories with different access methods.

The third problem centers on how you are. Clinicians, healthcare providers, insurers, radiologists, and researchers must agree on who you are before interacting via secure information-sharing on what you are to establish how you are.

The solution is information exchange as a service. Cloud computing as an information infrastructure utility can contribute to this. Consider the following multi-organization scenario: a physician’s order for a computed tomography (CT) scan goes to a radiological imaging department, where a radiologist performs the scan based on the patient’s identity and the workflow order. The workflow translates the scan and sends it digitally to a data archive for audit and retrieval. The workflow also invokes remote radiological services, where a specialist retrieves the scan, assesses the image quality, and uses pattern-matching analyses and human expertise to evaluate the patient’s condition. The report is then returned to the patient’s physician and the hospital’s imaging center.

Cloud-based information sharing—looking at all the informa­tion about us and our susceptibility to disease—helps discern how we are. However, it requires that we maintain information integrity and privacy through data governance, monitoring, and control.

In Europe and China, biobanks are emerging: digital information repositories of thousands of patients’ DNA and other biogenetic materials. Biobanks enable secure, anonymous exchanges of information among researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and healthcare providers attempting to cure complex diseases.

Healthcare is the fastest-growing area of digital information creation. We must provide cloud infrastructure for integration, identity reconciliation, and collaboration on anonymized information sets. It’s a new way that IT can support the sustainability of our humanity.

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