Nova Scotia Dept. of Health ramps up virtualization effort

Hospitals in Nova Scotia are getting a booster shot in the IT department with the help of virtualization technology.

The Nova Scotia Department of Health’s HITS-NS data centre supports IT in 34 hospitals across the province, and is the site of one of the more complex Meditech implementations in the world. “The cookie-cutter approach to applications or projects in the past was how many servers do I need,” said Gary Stronach, manager of technical services with Health Information Technology Services – Nova Scotia (HITS-NS). “Now it’s how many virtualized servers do I need, and do I have the resources in the hardware I already have?”

HITS-NS was three years into a four-year deployment of Meditech when it found its hardware was getting a little long in the tooth, he said, thanks to the volume of users and the SLAs it had in place with hospitals. So it went out to tender to get new hardware, and in the end chose Dell servers.

After running trial software for virtualizing servers, HITS-NS discovered it could put a number of services on a single blade – and take a number of 1U servers out of commission. Currently it’s virtualizing much of its production environment as a way to tackle pain points in the data centre.

HITS-NS was looking to enable fast, secure access to patient records, so all Meditech data was migrated to an EMC Symmetrix DMX system, which streamlined SAN and storage system management (the migration of all Meditech data to this system was completed within five hours). Two 60TB EMC Centura systems are used to provide online archives for a recently deployed PACS solution.

Using VMware virtualization technology, HITS-NS has replaced 20 single-purpose servers with one bank of 10 blade servers. “You can get better performance out of virtualized applications running on VMware,” said Stronach. “It doesn’t matter what type of storage we have on them.”

HITS-NS has one blade enclosure with a fibre connection to the SAN and another blade enclosure with iSCSI connections that serve as a gateway for storage. “We have flexibility in server virtualization as to what type of storage we need to have attached to the server,” he said.

The challenge was in the vision, he said, and trying to understand what virtualization meant and where the benefits would materialize. It’s important to understand the applications that your servers are running, he added, because some applications will fit nicely into the virtualized world and others won’t because they’re too resource intensive. Then you have to consider what type of storage you’re using – if you want to connect to SANs or iSCSI, for example. “That’s more in planning deployment than planning to go with virtualization,” he said.

HITS-NS recently placed an order for 16 more blades and over the next year will virtualize 17 of its Meditech application servers at a ratio of five to one. It will then migrate its EMC storage to the SAN and replicate that in its disaster recovery site.

Virtualization has gained a foothold in several areas: virtual memory, virtual servers and virtual networks. Virtual networks essentially fool users into thinking they have a dedicated network between themselves and whatever resource they’re connected to, when in reality they’re likely sharing that resource with a lot of people, said Ken Steinhardt, chief technology officer of customer operations with EMC Corp. The latest incarnation of this is storage virtualization.

The value comes into play, he said, when you’re able to take something that is increasingly complicated – more servers, more storage devices, more network integration points – and make the view of what you’re working on simpler.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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