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Building pMD Messaging Attachments: Storing Data Swiftly

We’re extremely excited about our upcoming release of attachment support for pMD, HIPAA compliant, secure text messaging. This feature will allow pMD users to send one another highly sensitive data, such as photos of patient charts, copies of lab results, pdf documents, and much more. As a member of the development team at pMD, the task of determining how to store all these files securely and efficiently presented a unique challenge.

pMD provides mobile software that improves patient care through charge capture, care coordination services, HIE implementation, and secure messaging. Due to the sensitive nature of the information providers exchange, it is essential that their data be stored within the secure confines of our data centers, not with a third-party service. So, we needed to find a top-notch storage system, capable of housing millions of files, that we could install on dedicated servers that we manage ourselves.

After several weeks of detailed research and testing, we established a clear winner. This system met and exceeded all of our requirements. It’s name is Swift, and it’s part of the OpenStack suite of cloud software. OpenStack products are specifically built for companies like pMD who want to deploy powerful, yet easy to use tools in their private clouds.

In our search for the right storage solution, we formulated a list of five major requirements that any contender must meet. Here is how Swift addresses each of these items:

Highly available / replicated. First and foremost, we required a system that would be tolerant of hardware failures. Swift makes several copies of every file it stores so that if a hard drive, or a server, or even an entire data center has a problem, we are guaranteed to have other copies of the data still available. Once the specific failure is repaired, Swift is smart enough to catch the server(s) back up with whatever they missed while offline.

Distributed. We needed the system we picked to make every file available to every machine on our internal network. In other words, we couldn’t just plug an external hard drive into one of our web servers, like you might do at home if you needed extra room for your photos and videos. Swift runs on dedicated servers in our data center. It provides something that we call an Application Programming Interface (API) in the software world, which is a simple interface that our other systems can use to talk to Swift whenever they need to save or retrieve files.

Scalable. It was very important to us to find a solution that could grow with the demands of our customer base. Swift is incredibly flexible. Whenever we want to increase our storage capacity, we can just pop some new hard drives into our existing servers or add a brand new server, tell Swift about the new components, and Swift immediately starts utilizing the additional space they provide.

Secure. Our users are health care professionals and they rely on pMD to help them securely manage sensitive, patient data. Because of this, the system we chose to store their message attachments had to support HIPAA compliant, modern, best-in-class encryption. Swift offers several sophisticated levels of security that allow us to encrypt and protect all the files it houses.

Easy to operate. Finally, as developers responsible for maintaining pMD’s infrastructure, we wanted a well-built system that we could install and rely on. We didn’t want a solution that would require a large amount of daily maintenance. As you can see, Swift is a sophisticated system. However, it’s also incredibly self-sufficient. Once it’s installed, it requires very little input from us to keep it running like a well-oiled machine.

We’ve been running Swift on a number of shiny new servers in our data centers for about a month now as we prepare our attachments feature for release. It’s been incredibly fun to work with, and it has blown us away with its power and performance. We can’t wait to give attachments to our users so that they too can experience the power of Swift!
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