Hospital Attaches LeftHand

Denver Health first set its sights on startup's IP SAN when it was still in the embryonic stage

May 23, 2003

4 Min Read
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When Denver Health started running out of storage space a couple of years ago, hospital CTO Jeff Pelot didn't go for tried and tested brand names. Instead, he set his sights on LeftHand Networks' virtual IP SANs, which at the time were barely even prototypes.

Pelot says he stumbled on LeftHand by accident. He was having lunch with a former employee about two and a half years ago, when she started talking about her new job in brand-spanking-new startup LeftHand. "She told me about the product, and I was intrigued," he says. "I thought, 'Oh man, this could really answer some of our problems.' "

At the time, Denver Health (formerly called Denver General) didn't have any networked storage -- it was storing all of its data on direct-attached storage and servers' internal disk storage. The hospital's data, from emails to highly sensitive records for its more than 1.2 million patients, was stored in the data center. With the amount of stored data growing at more than 30 percent a year, the hospital's storage needs were rapidly outgrowing its existing infrastructure. In addition, Pelot worried that a single natural disaster, like a flood, could wipe out all the hospital's stored data, since it was all located in the data center in the basement.

Trawling the industry for the best way to get out of the fix, Pelot looked at equipment from EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC), Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), but when he saw LeftHand's prototype for its Network Storage Module (NSM) hardware running its Linux-based Distributed Storage Matrix (DSM) software, it was love at first sight. Pelot says he especially liked that the boxes could be distributed anywhere in the network and still look -- and be managed -- as if they were a single SAN.

"It's disaster-proof," he says. "And its interface is almost intuitive."In addition, Pelot found LeftHand's price point, which was far lower than any of the traditional SANs he had looked at, very appealing. He won't say exactly how much he's paying for the six NSMs he currently has, but he says it's about half the 2.5 to 3 cents per Mbyte he's paying for raw EMC storage on his two Clariion boxes. "I don't think anyone on the market can meet LeftHand's price."

Almost immediately after he saw the demo, Pelot signed an informal beta agreement with LeftHand. "This was such a cool idea, that we were willing to do whatever it took," he says. "I wanted to be their first customer."

He got his wish. As LeftHand's first beta customer -- and later, its first customer -- Pelot had at least some small influence over the development of the NSM. "They showcased some potential colors for the prototype, and one was bright yellow," he says. "So I asked, 'What does that mean -- that it's under construction?' " LeftHand took the hint, and the NSM today is the same color as the rest of Denver Health's data center: dark gray.

While he thought LeftHand's technology was great, Pelot needed an immediate solution, and he wasn't about to shift all of Denver Health's critical data to a product that had barely been tested. "I wasn't going to bet my job on it," he says.

To tide him over, Pelot bought 5 Tbytes of storage on two EMC Clariions, a 4700 and a CX600, where he now stores all of his clinical data. Then, about a year ago, he started migrating all of Denver Health's business data to LeftHand's NSMs. The migration, he says, was very simple -- much easier than installing the Clariions. "Setting this thing up has been incredibly easy," he enthuses.The Clariion systems do perform better than the NSMs, Pelot concedes, but he insists that LeftHand has made great performance improvements and is almost up to the level of the EMC equipment.

Although Pelot now says he trusts LeftHand's products completely, he has decided to maintain the separation of clinical and business data. He currently has 5 Tbytes of storage on six NSMs, and says he will soon be buying two more.

But LeftHand uses a proprietary Ethernet storage protocol, instead of the industry standard, iSCSI. That means customers must continue to buy their storage from LeftHand if they need to expand their SAN. Isn't Denver Health concerned about vendor lock-in? Pelot says he's not, since the system works -- and works well -- today: "This keeps me from having to invest in another technology that will cost me even more money."

Since installing the NSMs, the hospital has experienced one disk failure after one of the units was inadvertently unplugged, but Pelot says the incident only reinforced his belief in LeftHand. "It did exactly what it was supposed to do: It rebuilt itself," he says. "We never lost any data, although we did see some performance degradation... It was a hell of a test."

Eugénie Larson, Reporter, Byte and Switch

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