Medical school tailors IP network for a wide range of exotic appliances

With 4,575 members, the University of Calgary’s faculty of medicine could be considered an enterprise, but there’s nothing enterprise-like about the traffic flowing over its network. From high-resolution diagnostic images to data streams from electron microscopes to on-line monitoring of specialized

equipment designed to maintain human tissue, the expectations placed on the network are greater than those on the average enterprise.

“”Out of 300 different labs, you may find anywhere from 20 to 40 exotic information appliances,”” says Hytham Khalil, director of the faculty’s Medicine Information Technology (MedIT) department. “”We can’t dictate standards like a company can; we have to work with what we’ve got, which means our network has to be very flexible and very diverse.””

This summer the MedIT department expects to complete the first phase of a major network upgrade that will use Nortel Networks Corp.’s voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology, delivering Gigabit Ethernet speeds at the edge and a terabit per second core. Yet, even with a need for more capacity, the key driver didn’t come from the faculty itself, but from a province-wide push to support electronic health records.

“”Without secure networks that have the capability to protect privacy, as well as to be managed, safe from intrusion and properly monitored, we wouldn’t be able to have continued access to that electronic health record environment,”” says Khalil. “”It’s a pretty tricky tightrope we have to walk.””

On the one hand, medical staff require access to critical resources on demand. On the other, patient information flowing between the university’s walls needs to be protected in accordance with privacy laws.

MedIT began its network upgrade in the summer of 2003 — spending a great deal of time on network design and working closely with Victoria-based Charter Telecom, a Nortel integrator and reseller. The first phase involves constructing a new set of utility rooms and provisioning about 7,000 ports within two existing buildings. The terabit core is scheduled for completion by the end of this summer and by fall, Khalil intends to have most ports lit up.

Until then, the new VoIP network will run in conjunction with the faculty’s existing 10/100 Mbps Ethernet data network to minimize disruption to users. “”We don’t have a lot of swing space,”” says Khalil. “”In order to reuse existing cables we’d have to unplug people for a period of time which is very difficult to do.””

To address security and privacy concerns, MedIT has developed an architecture that uses a service delivery model that uses virtual addressing to control access based on who the users are, rather than which part of the network they’re on.

Users on the network, for example, might be faculty members who are overseeing two or more research programs, teaching one or more classes and performing clinical work. Under the old design, they would only have access to whatever functionality was available on the subnet or connection they were using at a specific location. Following the upgrade, the network will be able to establish virtual local-area networks and user authentication will take place at the port, meaning staff can access authorized resources from any location.

Another goal is to use the converged network to replace the faculty’s existing phone system and two pilots are currently under way: one involving IP handsets from Cisco Systems and the other looking at a session initiation protocol (SIP) server. The MedIT group is also exploring appropriate network traffic analysis and monitoring tools as a way of controlling its upgraded network.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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