Few places exist where computing resources are as critical as in a hospital. Applications must be available around the clock, and must run in all kinds of abnormal places, such as on sterile equipment in operating rooms.
So why would a hospital jump into a brand-new technology such as VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure)? [ See also “Virtualizing the desktop” ]
For Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville, Ala., there was no other choice. “We looked at several things, like Citrix, when we started out, but it just wouldn’t run all the in-house apps, explains Tony Wilburn, network specialist at Huntsville Hospital. “Then we looked at ClearCube, but we’re trying to consolidate and save space in the datacenter. Then we looked at running VMware on the server blades, and it just works.”
The track record of the VDI project has been superb. The hospital estimates that it’s saving $100 per year in power costs for each full desktop replaced with a thin client connecting to its VDI servers. The infrastructure is based on IBM BladeCenter systems, with 14 blades currently running VMware’s Virtual Infrastructure 3. Each blade is outfitted with either dual- or quad-core Intel CPUs, 16GB of RAM, and an FC (Fibre-Channel) connection to an EMC SAN.
Huntsville Hospital estimates that each of the quad-core blades can handle about 75 desktop VMs, although 60 is the goal. The basic VDI desktop is a Windows XP VM with 5GB of disk space and 296MB of RAM. The VI3 servers run more than just desktops, though. “We’re running VDI right alongside our virtual servers, across all blades,” says Shawn Scott, network specialist. “We’re using every feature in VI3 except for consolidated backup – including load-balancing and high-availability tools.”
The implementation began when VDI brokers were still brand new – or unavailable. “We basically built our own with Linux-based load balancing tools, which works well for us,” Scott says. “We didn’t have to write any real code.” The thin clients are from Neoware; Wilburn estimates a seven- to 10-year lifecycle for each device. Right now there are more than 400 VDI-based thin clients in the hospital, with plans in place to ramp up to 4,000-plus within the next two years, all running on the VDI infrastructure.
The benefits that Huntsville Hospital has realized from VDI go even further. SSL VPNs and RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) provide secure, remote access to employees who are on the road. And desktop environments that live on the server by nature protect against data theft, because no data ever leaves the datacenter.
“That’s been a huge benefit”, says David Carlisle, Huntsville’s network manager, “Private data is displayed where it needs to be, but it doesn’t reside there. Nobody can use a USB flash drive to take anything, and there are no laptops to get stolen. If someone’s using a public terminal, we’re still secure.” Among other things, this goes a long way toward easing the burden of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) compliance.
Putting desktop virtualization into place hasn’t been simply a bed of roses, however. One of the major problems has been with application vendors. “There have been many times where we’ve run into support problems when we mention the VDI infrastructure. We’re usually told that it’s unsupported,” Carlisle notes. “We’ve found that the smaller vendors are much more apt to deal with it. The older, bigger companies are far more problematic.”
Overall, Huntsville’s VDI rollout has been so successful that it plans to double the footprint in the next few months as a brand-new emergency room goes online. “Everything in the new ER will be thin client and VDI-based,” says Wilburn, “from the reception area to the nurses stations to the OR. We’re adding another 24 blades to handle the load and provide for future expansion.”