by Lisa Vaas

Virtualization Helps Hospital Revive Aging Data Center

May 13, 20085 mins

Virtualization was just what the doctors ordered for Huntsville Hospital and its data center. Here's a look at why virtual servers were just the start for this IT group. One hitch so far: some software vendors have balked at supporting a virtualized environment.

The IT systems at Huntsville Hospital weren’t quite on their deathbed two years ago, but it was clear some radical intervention would be required. Virtualization has proved key in that intervention.

“We had old technology we knew had to be replaced. We had a high volume of desktops and servers that needed to be replaced. We had a data center that was out of floor space and power. We were down to less than 15 minutes of battery backup should we lose street power,” says Huntsville Hospital VP and CIO Rick Corn.

High systems availability, backup and disaster recovery are vital to any business: some 63 percent of respondents to CIO’s latest survey on enterprise virtualization effortscall disaster recovery one of their top three reasons to virtualize servers.

When your business entails people on stretchers, data availability, in the form of X-rays, CAT scans or electronic health records, can be a life or death matter.

But infrastructure at the hospital, whose Huntsville, Ala., campus supports 650 doctors, 2,000 nurses and 5,000 other employees, was so maxed out its three data centers had outgrown their own disaster recovery hardware and nearly outstripped the amount of power available from their existing connections, Corn says.

Having only 15 minutes of battery powered backup capacity meant that the campus couldn’t come close to matching its own requirements for systems availability.

The hospital opted to remedy the situation with virtualization. In a three-month pilot program that ran from December 2006 to February 2007, Huntsville implemented IBM BladeCenter rack servers and VMware software to set up a scalable infrastructure that could cut costs both on the front end and the back end, for redundancy, failover and disaster recovery.

The pilot program proved so successful that the hospital decided to go full bore with its virtualization effort, primarily for server consolidation, at first.

As the larger implementation was planned, however, the IT staff realized that virtualization could improve the hospital’s other major IT projects, including moving from paper to electronic health records, the rollout of thousands of new PCs and other devices to access those records, and the WiFi network to support them, says David Carlisle, IT manager of networks and services.

The server consolidation project expanded to include desktop virtualization and remote access, all in one package, he says.

“When we knew we were going to be putting out 2,000-plus devices, I started talking to the technical support team about the possibility of using virtualization technology for servers, and it evolved into a discussion of [using that same approach with] the desktop,” Carlisle says.

The virtualization project is still underway; so far Huntsville has rolled out a virtualized Web-based SSL VPN to provide virtual desktops to the doctors in the form of thin clients that physicians can access from anywhere. The thin-client approach is particularly attractive from the perspectives of security and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliance, given that patient data doesn’t wind up on client PCs and thus doesn’t leave the hospital’s four walls.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT, saysmany companies are buying blade servers to help consolidate existing servers and to squeeze additional computing power into a concentrated and minimalist footprint in the data center.

“For organizations that have space constraints but need additional computing power, it’s an ideal solution,” he said.

Huntsville has found one minor sticking point with virtualization: Some of its ISVs have been slow to support the technology.

“The biggest drawback we have is finding software vendors willing to support the virtual environment,” Corn says. “They’re coming around, pretty quickly at this point, but there are still those who say ‘We don’t support it. You’re on your own if you go down this path.'”

Besides realizing significant savings on utility bills, Corn’s team has achieved new agility: the time to deploy a server has shrunk to 10 minutes, he says. Depending on load per blade, the hospital can install from 15 to 25 virtual servers per blade. The desktop piece of the puzzle is handling 63 to 68 desktops per blade. Both desktops and servers are now kept on the SAN (Storage Area Network), so no single hard drive failure or blade failure will threaten to take the system or an application down.

The hospital’s data store is up to some 120 Terabytes on raw SAN storage. Old PCs (in the 6- to 7-year-old range)have been repurposed as thin clients, further stretching capital dollars, as Pentium III-class machines prove capable of running memory-intensive applications via virtualization, Corn says.

Meanwhile, Huntsville not only has spared itself the need to add IT staffers, but also has actually been able to shift one or two full-time employees from desktop support to network administration, a “huge bonus” for operations, Carlisle says. A single seat of administration from the PC side of the house means that support staff is spared the campus walk-around of several blocks.

Granted, less exercise isn’t what the doctor tends to order, but Huntsville clearly sees plenty of other benefits from virtualization.