IRB can now move huge data files with technology

Send large files without bogging down network

A new technology solution can help research institutions with a nagging logistical problem — ever-larger files that must be routed within an institution or to external partners.

Accellion Courier, a product of Accellion Inc., in Palo Alto, CA, allows a user to attach huge, secured data files to e-mails without overwhelming an institution's computer system or those to whom the e-mails are sent.

Y.F. Juan, director of product marketing for Accellion, says the product has been particularly popular with researchers who must exchange data files with their colleagues.

But its features also have implications for IRBs, who can use Courier to ensure that privacy-protected information is being shared securely, or even to distribute IRB information to members.

Courier is not a software product, but a file transfer appliance that can move even multi-gigabyte files within and outside an organization, without the hassle of using a file transfer protocol (FTP). Used in conjunction with another Accellion product, Accellion Attachments, a file can be attached to an e-mail and sent to another user without causing system performance problems — slowdowns or crashes — on either end, Juan says.

"Typically, a user sends a file as an e-mail attachment. The problem is that when you attach a very large file, it has a severe performance impact," Juan says.

"There are a number of highly technical solutions you can use, but the average users are researchers and faculty and they just don't need this kind of headache," he says. "With an appliance configuration, it makes it much easier to manage. Essentially, you get a box, you plug it in, and you don't have to worry about it."

Instead of working through the institution's own e-mail system, the Accellion Courier sets up a separate, parallel channel, one that can hold very large files and allow designated recipients to tap into it and download the files.

A user creates an e-mail in the normal way, but instead of using a standard attachment — for example, the "paper clip" icon in Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes — he or she instead clicks on an Accellion icon, linking the e-mail to the uploaded data file.

The recipient clicks on the link and is routed to a completely separate, secure file transfer channel, which doesn't impact the recipient's existing e-mail system.

"It creates a sort of tunnel that goes into the appliance, requests a file, and downloads the file," Juan says.

Two way file transfers

One of the unique advantages of this system is that the recipient can also send information back through that tunnel, regardless of his or her computer system limitations.

"There are a number of solutions out there that are designed to handle large files and it usually goes in just one direction," Juan says. "When the external party working on a project may need to send a large data file back, it can't. It's a huge problem. What this does very well is that it allows external people to send (large) files to you."

That ability to allow large files to be sent from external users was one of the factors that prompted Cornell University to begin using Accellion's products, says Steven M. Erde, PhD, MD, Senior Director of the Office of Academic Computing at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

"We're probably not that unusual an organization," Erde says. "We had a lot of people who were increasingly frustrated with the ability to attach multi-megabyte e-mail attachments to other institutions and colleagues."

He says Cornell developed its own FTP system to allow faculty to send out large attachments, but it became increasingly difficult to maintain. Accellion's products solved a number of the institution's problems. "It was really easy to use," he says. "And it allowed outsiders to create accounts to send stuff in, because previously, we could only have people send stuff out."

He says Accellion was able to configure the appliance so that external users connecting to it would see a screen that resembled Cornell's existing web site.

In all, he says, adding on Accellion "has been a pretty painless step. Zero complaints, zero down time. Just the kind of thing you like."

Juan says there are a number of security features included in the Accellion products. The file transfer connections themselves are set up as https Web connections, ensuring the security of the file transfer. Files themselves can be encrypted.

There are three levels of authentication that a user can set to ensure that only the proper recipients see the file.

At one level, anyone receiving the e-mail link could download a file without authenticating themselves. The second level would require authentication, but allow a person to forward a link to anyone within his or her organization. The highest level would prevent usable links from being forwarded.

Organizations can configure the level of security they desire, Juan says. It can be integrated into the institution's existing login and password protections.

Juan says health care research organizations are increasingly looking to these type of protections to ensure that privacy requirements of HIPAA are being met, as well as to protect proprietary information.

Potential IRB uses

Other Accellion functions that IRBs could find useful include:

'Sunsetting' a file. The user "sunsets" a file, making it available on the appliance for a set length of time. This frees up space for other files, but Juan says users are increasingly telling him that they use this feature to ensure that they're working with the most recent updated version of a file.

"Especially in research, where people exchange files very frequently, sometimes people get confused," he says. "If you sunset a file, even if someone goes back to the old e-mail and clicks on it for whatever reason, it will not be there."

An IRB, for example, could use the sunset function to be sure that as protocols are revised, only the most recent version is available.

Return receipts. When the recipient of an e-mail clicks on the Accellion link to access a file, the sender is notified via e-mail. Juan says some commercial software vendors use this function as official notification that they can bill a client. IRB staff could use the function to ensure that members have received needed information for an upcoming meeting, for example.

At Cornell, Erde says the IRB is not an official user of the Accellion product, because the institution hasn't gone to a completely electronic system. But he believes it's probably being used informally for some file transfers.

He says it would be a simple way for an IRB to distribute packets to its members, particularly if there was printed material that needed to be scanned.

"If you have scanned [documents], you're going to start seeing massive files," he says. "You can have a distribution list set up and you can just plop it in and say 'Here are all your cases to look at,' he says. "Our IRB is not using it for that function, but it would work fine."

The cost of the Accellion appliance varies based the number of users and the configuration required for an institution. Juan says the cost ranges from about $3,500 for the smallest available box to about $40,000 for an appliance that supports 5,000 users.

In addition to that one-time cost, a client pays a yearly licensing fee of 20% of the price.

For more information about Accellion file transfer products, call (650) 739-0095 or visit the company's web site at