Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Can Virtualization Save Your Life?

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The benefits of virtualization, offering IT organizations the opportunity to consolidate and reduce costs, can also extend to scalability and reliability for the most mission-critical workloads, including those that serve medical facilities.

Moses Cone Health System is a group that operates five hospitals as well as a regional cancer center in the United States. The medical facility operator began to move to virtualization in 2007, and is now taking the next step with the adoption of the Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS).

“Like every health care provider in the industry we need to develop a robust, reliable infrastructure and we need to have the infrastructure to support scalability and growth,” Steve Horsley, vice president and associate CIO at Moses Cone Health System, told “Health care economics today is driving consolidation and it’s happening very rapidly, and so as we consolidate, our architecture needs to scale and that’s where we’re getting the economics to lower our costs.”

Horsley noted that his environment is always challenged in terms of space, power and cooling, as well as agility, as business needs change. He added that his IT organization needs to have the ability to provision resources rapidly and cost-effectively, which is what led the hospital group down the path of virtualization.

Michael Heil, manager of technology infrastructure at Moses Cone Health System, noted that the adoption of virtualization began in 2007 with a move to VMware. Heil noted that the Health System was running out of space in its data center, both in terms of physical space and cooling capacity.

“Our initial VMware implementation included doing a physical-to-virtual migration for 40 physcial servers,” Heil said. “As a result, we were able to power down the physical servers and free up four tons of cooling capacity, so we saw a quick return on our investment for the initial implementation.”

Heil noted that there have also been operational benefits with greater uptime, flexibility and workload deployment capabilities.

Now the Moses Cone Health System is aiming to consolidate even further with the help of Cisco UCS c-series rack-mounted servers. The Cisco UCS is a virtualized server delivery platform offering expanded memory and server capacity.

In health care, not all applications can be virtualized entirely. Heil explained that his operating room system has Microsoft SQL database servers and then eight additional Windows boxes that support the application. He noted that the operating room application system vendor is amenable to virtualizing the eight boxes, but they won’t support the Microsoft SQL databases under virutalization.

“So we move those physical workloads to Cisco UCS blades, where I can boot from the SAN on a UCS blade, which gives me flexibility for disaster recovery that I didn’t have prior,” Heil said. “So when you say ‘highly virtualized,’ it’s really about virtualizing the physical workload to provide more agility and flexibility.”

One of the concerns that is sometimes raised about the use of virtualization is that it doesn’t offer the same level of application performance as a bare metal physical installation. But that has not entirely been the experience of the Moses Cone Health System with its UCS deployment.

“In my experience implementing the Cisco UCS platform, the raw compute capacity has been equal or greater to the traditional server platforms that we have utilized,” Heil said.

Heil added that he’s able to put more workloads on a UCS system. However, he noted that whenever anything is put on top of a virtualization hypervisor, there is a performance cost. But for the Moses Cone Health System, that cost is largely overshadowed by the greater overall reliability and availability benefits of using UCS.

“Even if there was any amount latency involved, it’s negligible from a clinician’s perspective versus the reliability, which is what’s critical,” Horsley said. “If there is sub-second latency, they don’t care, but if system goes down for two minutes, they care.”

Moving forward, it’s the scalability of the UCS system that will help the Moses Cone Health System to complete one of its biggest IT projects.

“In health care we’re adopting electronic medical records and that is the largest initiative, a $100 million-plus project and a large portion of that will run on the UCS platform,” Horsley said. “The good news is that the portion that will run on UCS is the part that needs to scale the most over time.”

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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