Virtual Solutions

Kathryn Mackenzie, for HealthLeaders Magazine , February 5, 2009
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Consolidating servers—or even moving entire departments off-site—can help hospitals stretch their technology resources further.

When it became clear that the more than 2,000 desktop devices at Huntsville (AL) Hospital needed to be either upgraded or replaced, chief information officer Rick Corn and his IT team opted to do neither. Instead, the team chose to remedy the situation at the 881-licensed-bed hospital with a third option: virtualization.

"Facing the capital costs related to that kind upgrade project forced us to consider other options," Corn says. "After we did an awful lot of due diligence we chose this route, and we've been able to stretch our technology resources tremendously—especially in terms of desktops supported per PC tech."

One of the most often-voiced complaints among CIOs at hospitals large and small is that their internal resources are being underutilized under the one-server, one-application model. But a growing number of IT departments are turning to virtualization to improve the efficiency and availability of resources and applications within their organizations by consolidating servers. Those who have been through the process say that virtualization can not only lower capital costs by requiring less hardware, but allow IT staff to spend less time managing servers and more time testing new technologies.

Centralized solution
Desktop and workstation infrastructures can be extremely complex, unreliable, and expensive, says Corn, so the IT team at Huntsville decided to go with "thin client computing," which he says can help address some of those challenges. The concept works like this: Instead of installing applications on each individual PC throughout the hospital, thin client workstations are connected to central servers, and those workstations can be used to access applications from the servers. Thin clients used to access the centralized applications are substantially less expensive—about $200 to $300 compared with as much as $600 per desktop—and considerably cheaper to run, both in terms of management and power savings.

Using the IBM VMware solution could allow the hospital to consolidate the servers from its three data centers. "We can install something like 15 to 20 servers depending on the load per blade. With our desktop solution we can get more than 60 desktops per blade. It gives us secure, data network integrity in that none of the data that is being accessed by any of the PCs ever leaves the data center," says Corn.

Moving entire departments offsite
After virtualizing the hospital's desktop environments, Huntsville began exploring the option of moving entire departments off-site—primarily with medical transcription and coding. "We've found that we're able to do it and not be encumbered with having to do maintenance of desktops and PCs at the home of the individual who is working off-site. We do the vast majority of our desktop work sitting in a chair at the help desk," says Corn. This is possible, he says, because they have been able to set up virtual desktops with a number of business partners that allow workers to do much more self-service to get the information they need as opposed to having to call people within the organization.

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