Moving Toward the Healthcare Cloud: Step 1: Virtualization

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Sponsored by an educational grant from EMC Corporation

In the matter of a few short years, virtualization has leapt from bleeding edge to leading edge. Even the most traditionally risk-adverse healthcare providers are maximizing virtualization. The reasons behind the uptick are fairly straightforward. Virtualization, and the resulting storage consolidation, delivers a host of benefits including reduced costs, streamlined IT resource management and accelerated application deployment. It’s both simpler and more efficient to consolidate, the first phase on the journey to the private cloud.

Start with consolidation

A key first step in the transition to cloud-based computing is to move away from the traditional siloed healthcare IT environment with each application housed on a separate server. In many hospitals, the enterprise houses multiple SANs for data storage. Management can be complex and resource intense with server care and feeding consuming an inordinate share of IT resources.

Many enterprises begin with the physical consolidation of servers and storage to gain IT efficiencies. As a result, the site begins to accrue benefits such as streamlined management, increasing the consistency of security controls, and providing a framework to improve service level agreements. True nimbleness and flexibility become apparent as the healthcare organization move from IT production to virtualizing business and clinical applications in the virtualized data center.

Here, savings and results gain steam. IT becomes more service-oriented, responsive and proactive, and, at the same time, business continuity and disaster recovery reach new levels. The next stage—moving to a healthcare private cloud—will require higher levels of security and compliance particularly with enhanced protected health information (PHI) requirements. This IT-as-a-service focus is offered to end-users within a defined “community”where on-demand infrastructure can be leveraged. Health Imaging & IT visited a trio of sites to learn their approaches to storage consolidation and server virtualization. The diverse group includes an academic medical center; a mid-sized regional healthcare enterprise and a rural healthcare system. Each of these organizations’ reasons for embarking on the journey toward the private cloud varies, but their advice is consistent. “Get on board,” they insist. Read on to learn more about how these pioneers are working in concert with their partners to leverage the operational, financial, and business benefits of virtualization.

A holistic model of application support

Aspirus in Wausau, Wis., is a regional healthcare organization comprised of five hospitals and a growing network of independent primary and specialty care physicians. “When Aspirus started down the digital imaging path, there was no sense of the scale of digital imaging,” recalls Glynn Hollis, director of technical services. The enterprise quickly outgrew its original small disk array for digital image storage and opted to invest in an EMC Corporation Centera CAS (content addressed storage) to store archived radiology data. Aspirus also deployed a separate storage area network (SAN) for its Epic EMR and clinical management applications data.

By the mid-2000s, the Aspirus IT department realized it needed to apply the brakes and evaluate storage in a more holistic manner. At the time, the organization operated three SANs with PACS data and EMR data with corresponding file storage—each residing on an individual SAN. “We realized it wasn’t sustainable to manage individual architecture for each individual application,” recalls Hollis. Costs of the conventional server storage model had started to escalate with wasted CPU cycles, high cooling and electricity costs and an ever-growing footprint. At the same time, virtualization was beginning to make a mark in the server world. Hollis and colleagues began asking some smart questions:

  • Why confine the organization to the one application and /or one SAN model?
  • Why not share IT resources (servers) that are not well-utilized?
  • How could the healthcare system consolidate its storage architecture?

“We didn’t want to be pigeon-holed. We wanted the flexibility and agility to create an environment where we didn’t have to research systems and procure hardware for every application,” explains Hollis. In this innovative new model, vendors would apply their software to Aspirus’ environment rather than Aspirus needing to adapt its environment