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Desktop Virtualization A Remedy For Hospital

A New York healthcare provider deploys "zero-client" devices to reduce PC maintenance and improve business performance.

Hospital Uses Desktop Virtualization To Improve Healthcare
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Hospital Uses Desktop Virtualization To Improve Healthcare

The cost of managing desktop PCs is spiraling for St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers. They're spending too much time and money on maintenance, software upgrades, calls to the help desk, and electrical power.

St. Vincent's is solving the problem by replacing its PCs with a new category of "zero client" desktop. Windows desktop software runs virtualized on servers in the hospital data center, accessed over the network from the desktop. Users get the same, familiar Windows tools, and IT gains increased flexibility, efficiency and reduced cost.

St. Vincent's has about 40 locations in the five boroughs of New York, with about 3,000 to 5,000 PCs and notebooks which are, in computer terms, positive antiques, at three to five years old.

The organization is deploying the zero-client devices in its hospital in the West Village section of Manhattan. The hospital has a 140-year tradition of providing healthcare to the poor. It's a not-for-profit that gets money from government, charitable fundraising, Medicare, and Medicaid -- "the regular shebang," said Kane Edupaganti, director of IT operations and communications for the organization.

St. Vincent's faces fairly typical problems dealing with PC maintenance. Because the systems are old, they're temperamental. Users make frequent calls to the help desk. Hardware problems and some software problems require time-consuming visits to the user's desk, which runs up support calls.

The first option the company considered to solve its problem was repurposing the old PCs as thin clients, launching a remote-desktop session to a virtual machine running in the data center. That would have solved a lot of problems, but would have left a lot of problems still in place, Edupaganti said. "We didn't want to go down that route because we didn't want a fat PC out there sucking up 130-160 watts of power, and we didn't want a Windows operating system out there that we had to manage, even though it wasn't visible to the user," he said.

The organization then looked into thin clients, but those devices still had operating systems, either Linux or Windows CE, still requiring some maintenance.

St. Vincent's then discovered zero-client devices from vendor Pano Logic. The Pano Device is a small, rectangular box that connects to the network, and into which the user plugs a keyboard, mouse, and display. The zero-client devices get their name because they have no operating system, and no disk drive or other moving parts -- the device just boots off the network, and accesses a VMware virtual machine running on the server in the datacenter.

St. Vincent's launched a pilot in its emergency department, which runs on the Verizon NPLS network. That department complained about lag using the old, fat PCs in conjunction with the slow network. Users weren't able to access patient charts and other data fast enough, leading to a backlog. The bottleneck was affecting patient flow and cash flow too, as billing was delayed.

As part of the speed-up, St. Vincent's switched to a more responsive Electronic Virtual Private Link network from Verizon, for more responsiveness.

St. Vincent's also swapped its ancient PCs running Windows 2000 Professional on 256-512 MB RAM and a Pentium 4 chip, for virtual Windows XP machines, each of which has 1 GB of RAM and a new dual-core processor. All the software runs on servers in the data center. "All that's moving back and forth is the screen scrapes," Edupaganti said.

The Pano Logic devices took about an hour to get running. The new machines led to immediate improvements for emergency room productivity. "They were able to catch up to 200-300 backed-up charts in a matter of two weeks," Edupaganti said. No backed-up charts meant no backed-up billing and improved financial performance.

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