Importance of Backup and Recovery in a Virtualized Healthcare Environment

SteveMatheson-200By Steve Matheson, Vice President Product and Sales, BridgeHead Software
Twitter: @BridgeHeadHDM

For the enterprise, virtualization is not a new concept – it’s been doing the rounds for over 10 years and Gartner officially labelled the technology ‘mature’ in its May 2016 market report. And no wonder, it’s hard to argue against the benefits of virtual machines – they cut maintenance and administration costs, they provide flexibility to meet the changing and growing demands of users, and allow an organization to make the most of its hardware and reduce the potential for downtime and data loss.

Similarly, when it comes to healthcare, virtualization is being fully embraced. And rightly so as all of those enterprise benefits make sense for healthcare environments – especially given the ever-increasing need for efficiency, reliability, scalability and data governance, as well as the requirement for multi-user access, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Added to this, the availability of physical space is a big concern for hospitals – it is expensive and must therefore be utilized wisely. In fact, many hospitals are looking to reduce their overall physical footprint to cut costs.

Benefits of virtualization in a healthcare setting
Before the rise of virtualization, the average hospital would have had around 1000 machines. Think, for a moment, what the footprint of 1000 physical machines in a datacentre would look like – not least from an environmental point of view, but also cost and efficiency. In contrast, the average hospital today has around 800 virtual machines and 200 physical machines – when you think about the efficiencies inherent in reducing your physical footprint, you understand the rationale. Virtual machines still need maintenance but reduce the use of physical machines while the costs of staffing and overhead diminish overnight. In fact, we’re hearing that some hospitals are able to further reduce power consumption by simply reducing the number of physical machines running at night. You can also shut down virtual machines to carry out maintenance, without incurring any adverse impact on your server estate. But, above all, hospitals are buying into the concept of virtualization because it promises to improve uptime, as well as supporting cloud adoption.

Got a virtual machine? Now let’s back it up
Backup, whether of physical or virtual machines, is a critical component of any healthcare organization’s IT strategy. Needless to say, when you are holding patient data there are far reaching consequences if that data is lost, corrupt or stolen. Think back to examples of recent ransomware attacks on hospitals, of which there are growing numbers globally. In the worst cases, routine operations were severely delayed, and critical patients moved, with the downtime impacting the care of thousands of patients for several days.

As a hospital, you most likely have virtual machines, or at the very least you may be thinking about deploying virtual machines, but how do you back them up? In simple terms, backup can be achieved by taking snapshots of the virtual machine, this is a relatively quick and easy way of making records of data at a moment in time. When you back up in a physical environment the file is converted from its native format, so when you want to retrieve it, it has to be converted back again – resulting in time delays that are unhelpful or costly to the hospital. In a virtual environment when a snapshot is taken, it is not converted, so retrieving the file is a lot quicker because it’s already in the format you need.

This is great, but the problem with this approach to backup is that once you revert back to a previous snapshot you cannot go back to the present. So, what can we do to improve upon this?

Instant recovery with clones?
This may sound obvious, but many healthcare IT professionals often focus on the business of backup when there’s a more valuable conversation about data recovery to be had. After all, let’s not forget why hospitals backup. The good news is that a virtual machine backup promises a better restore experience than physical machines as they are quicker and easier to restore through instant recovery clones.

If the worst happens and your hospital suffers any kind of data incident, then full and instant recovery is the best scenario you can hope for – ensuring minimal disruption to patient care. Think about the potential use of instant recovery clones within healthcare. Instant recovery clones, or VM Forks as they are known, allow you to rapidly clone a running virtual machine. So instead of taking a snapshot of the data and storing it in long term media, which takes time to boot and restore, you restore your virtual machine within 30 seconds in some cases. In addition, our software enables hospitals to check the backup before doing a full restore.

How does virtual machine protection help cybersecurity?
Now, think about the latest healthcare ransomware story you read about. Perhaps they weren’t utilizing instant recovery clones for their virtual machines and could have been? Would the hospital have been able to continue to function without taking the systems down and would those patients have been treated quicker, improving the outcome? It’s very likely the answers are “yes.”

And, it’s not just the risk of cyber-crime that healthcare providers need to worry about. If, for example, there were a huge power outage in a hospital it’s likely that critical patients or those requiring immediate medical attention would need to be relocated. But what good is this without ongoing access to patient records? With a virtual environment, it’s possible to recover the whole system in the cloud, with patient data being made accessible from an alternative hospital.

Trust your backup provider
As hospitals continue to move to the cloud, the backup and recovery of virtualized machines will only become more critical. Whether you backup with snapshots held on long term media, or using instant recovery clones, my advice would always be to speak to those with expertise in healthcare, those that understand the unique challenges of the sector and can provide you with the best advice to protect patient-critical data.