Behind the Scenes

Sept. 24, 2009

How Virtualization Can Affect the IT Budget

Less hardware means fewer physical devices to replace, upgrade, maintain and troubleshoot, translating into lower costs.

The twin emphases on digitizing medical records to facilitate communication and complying with HIPAA privacy regulations foster a crossroads of decision making as healthcare providers consider moving to a new electronic medical records (EMR) system or a hardware refresh. In either case, the pressure of maintaining growing data pools, while keeping pace with security and disaster recovery, is stronger than ever.

Virtualization is a technology that can change the game. It is a possible remedy for EMR initiatives, or overdue server or desktop replacement initiatives.

Like many data centers, the healthcare back room shares common ills: aging hardware, growing power consumption, security threats, wasted storage space and staffing that is often stretched too thin. Virtualization addresses these directly.

Virtualization offers the ability to take a bank of physical servers and move them to one physical host, regardless of the required operating system. Virtual machines share the storage, processor and memory of the physical host, allowing up to an 8:1 consolidation ratio.

Less hardware means fewer physical devices to replace, upgrade, maintain and troubleshoot, translating into lower costs associated with staffing, support contracts and space. Administrators can provision virtual machines within minutes compared to physical servers that could take weeks. With fewer devices to plug in that draw power and require cooling, consumption is significantly reduced and savings are realized immediately.

Security management is easier, with fewer nodes to protect and fewer licenses to purchase. Storage space that was previously idle is now shared among virtual machines, maximizing space available and eliminating islands of space found on physical servers.

Typically, applications and physical servers require a 1:1 implementation. Should an outage or disaster occur, new hardware with backup data must be readily available. With virtualization, data is automatically moved to standby virtual machines, thereby removing dependency on replacement hardware. Where virtualization masks the operating system, the minefield of restoring to disparate equipment is avoided.

Virtualization also creates an image file of the machine that can be backed up traditionally or stored with a hosting service. In the event of an outage, it can be booted up with essential registry and application data embedded within, ultimately expediting recovery and eliminating many of the points that cause recovery failures.

Traditionally in healthcare environments, the desktop served as the workstation through which care is tracked. The desktop, however, invites risks where users can easily write data to USB drives, install personal applications and potentially bring in malware. The virtual desktop brings the storage and applications into the data center, leaving users with an interface known as a thin client to log in and administer care transactions without having data local to them. Inappropriate use of network resources is eliminated, making HIPAA compliance easier.

With the desktop housed in the data center, provisioning is carried out in minutes, much like server provisioning, which eliminates having to make in-person support visits. Users maintain the same experience they are accustomed to, eliminating any retraining concerns.

With the data residing in the data center, IT staff can now be assured all data is protected and subject to offsite storage routines. Virtualization enhances replication strategies to redundant locations, providing a backup platform for users to reach their desktop remotely.

Virtualization also allows a healthcare provider to gradually move into a new solution while focusing on applications that are most pressing, and replacing equipment as maintenance agreements expire or hardware reaches the end of its lifecycle. In this way, investments made in virtualization technology will save capital expenses on new hardware and infrastructure, as well as operating costs.

William Sellers is lead systems engineer for Ventu, Waltham, Mass.

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