Healthcare Firm Meets Remote Challenges -

Healthcare Firm Meets Remote Challenges

To get the most out of its new document imaging solution, healthcare receivables management company AHC Inc. needed to find a way to get images to its five branch locations in a timely fashion.

And with a key remote site in Boca Raton, Fla., already hit twice during hurricane season, the organization knew it needed a rock solid disaster recovery plan as well.

After looking at products from a half-dozen leading storage area network (SAN) vendors, it was Compellent Technologies' Storage Center with Remote Instant Replay that helped AHC achieve its goals.

Thanks to the Compellent installation, AHC, with headquarters in Manassas, Va., can provide multi-site replication and disaster recovery for approximately 500 employees across six locations, in Albany, N.Y., Fresno, Calif., Boca Raton, Monterey, Mexico, Peoria, Ill., and Manassas, according to Chris Stettler, IT director at AHC.

"We've achieved the two goals we outlined in 2004: the data replication and disaster recovery," he says.

The company now replicates digitized files to branch offices every four hours, which is 80 percent faster than before. And AHC has a disaster recovery strategy in place that will allow it to get up and running quickly if the Boca Raton office goes down in a storm, Stettler adds.

AHC worked with outside technology partner Mavenspire Inc. of Hunt Valley, Md., to determine requirements, needs and vendor assessment, and to assist with implementation.

Looking for a Fix

As an organization that helps hospitals with reimbursements, AHC deals with enormous amounts of paper. Stettler says the company could receive as much as 5,000 to 6,000 documents per day, or 8,000 to 9,000 pages. That's why in mid-2004, the company implemented a proprietary document imaging solution.

"We now scan inbound documents to our transaction system," he says, adding that employees in remote offices can access the data in less than a day. When manual processes were in place, it could take up to seven business days for remote offices to gain access to information.

While the document imaging system was enormously beneficial to AHC, the company ran into a problem when remote employees accessed the system. At corporate headquarters, LAN speeds allowed users to access the images quickly. However, when the images had to traverse the wide area network (WAN) to reach employees at the branch offices, users would have to wait two to three minutes for an image to pop up on their screens.

With as many as 100 to 150 remote users accessing images, "the system was just too slow," says Stettler.

A second problem the organization confronted was disaster recovery. In both 2004 and 2005, AHC's Boca Raton office was affected by hurricanes. This was a huge problem for the company because the remote offices hosted all local files, so when they were off line, files were unavailable.

AHC began meeting with SAN vendors early last year and evaluated vendors against a number of criteria:

  • Modular storage architecture for growth and expansion
  • Web-based management
  • Minimal training
  • Support for multiple disk technologies
  • Data snapshots
  • Automated snapshots
  • Data progression
  • Storage virtualization
  • Async/sync data replication
  • Four-hour response warranty (24x7)
  • Boot from SAN
  • Power requirements
  • User access control for management
  • Cost
"We selected Compellent because they were the only vendor that met all of our criteria," says Stettler.

Working out the Kinks

AHC took possession of the 4 terabyte Storage Center SAN last summer, built a network in a test environment, and ran it for six weeks to make sure the system was stable. "We duplicated the network in Virginia, simulated the WAN and built it out as if we were running to the remote offices," says Stettler.

Product rollout began in August. The IT department copied data off the old system, pushed it out to the new system and redirected users to the new storage environment. At the same time, AHC had to change the server and upgrade the network operating system and remote networks, changes which, according to Stettler, were driven by new software loaded in the front server.

A new backup center was also created in the Fresno office, which was completed in December.

The initial implementation, which took place with the help of three internal engineers, Mavenspire and some help desk personnel, met with varying success, according to Stettler.

The Boca Raton office was installed in October, but the installation crew forgot to take an initial snapshot of the data. "We had to haul the system back and resynch the data, which caused some serious delays," he says.

Then AHC discovered it didn't have enough bandwidth for the remote offices. "We learned about rate change," says Stettler, explaining how the amount of storage increases day to day as a result of users who touch the system. In other words, AHC discovered that it was making 50 to 60 gigabytes of changes a day.

The T1 line to Boca Raton and to backup Fresno was ramped up to 3MB, and the company brought in a product from Packeteer to boost WAN performance. "We're now getting a 3:1 ratio on bandwidth, which is like paying for 3MB and getting 9MB," explains Stettler. With the increase in bandwidth, the system replicates as it should on a daily basis.

Compellent worked with AHC to overcome the challenges. "They helped us refine replication streams and quality of service settings when we were running on insufficient bandwidth," says Stettler.

Looking Ahead

Today, AHC replicates all file shares, SQL database, e-mail and the transaction system. Within the next couple of months, replication will also include a new e-mail system and fax. "This hinges on getting additional bandwidth of 6MB to the Fresno office and a DS3 line in Virginia," says Stettler.

AHC discovered that its appetite for storage is ravenous and plans on adding an additional chassis with SATA drives of 300 GB or higher, depending on what's available.

Using IP-based replication, the company can now expect a quick and cost-effective recovery if the Florida office is affected during hurricane season.

The ROI?

"Being able to recover our Florida office is huge," says Stettler. From a cost perspective, he reports that AHC saved about a $250,000 on the SAN alone when comparing the Compellent solution against products from other vendors.

"That's a huge difference for a medium-size company like ours," he says.

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