The human touch

When migrating to a new data centre architecture, the technology easily can captivate a network executive. After all, who isn't lured by the promise of lower costs and automated management? Don't be misled, warns Henry Piaskowski, IS director for Swedish Medical Centre, a 7000-employee nonprofit healthcare provider. If you want to avoid injuring your migration efforts, you must first focus on your people and your processes, he advises.

The healthcare provider is nearing the end of a two and a half-year, $US12.5 million project that moves it from ageing technology to a model virtualized infrastructure. The undertaking, which will affect every point on the network, including desktops, servers, back-office applications, storage and management, will ready Swedish for a new clinical information system (CIS). When Swedish wraps up the infrastructure project at the end of the year, it will be ready to host its new CIS. (The CIS, to be deployed in a separate project, will grant healthcare workers better access to patient records no matter where doctors and patients roam among the healthcare systems' 15 primary locations.)

Yet as exciting as the new systems are, the moment Piaskowski and his staff identified the requisite application, server and storage virtualization technologies, Piaskowski paused. He realized the technology would be useless if the staff wasn't prepared. IT needed to turn away from a break/fix mode and toward proactive management. To do that, Piaskowski and his team needed to adopt best practice standards and reorganize the IS staff.

So Swedish's first major investment wasn't in a fancy new product, but in its people and the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). "We required all management in IS go through ITIL training. As part of the process side, we wanted to make sure we were rolling the new infrastructure out right," Piaskowski says.

For instance, IS management used ITIL to design best practices, standardized incident response procedures, says Don Iverson, manager of IT infrastructure for Swedish.

Before the IT upgrade, "if we became aware of an incident, we would react in an ad hoc way.

"Now we have documented processes that the department follows to report the incident all the way through to resolution, and to identify the resources that are needed," he says.

As managers designed procedures, they saw that people often had overlapping or ambiguous roles. To man that incident response team and every other station spelled out by ITIL standards, IT managers would need to rethink job responsibilities.

"Within the IS organization, there's daily production -- keeping services delivered to users -- and there's development, engineering and building types of work. The way we were organized before, people were expected to do all of those things," Iverson says.

So after Piaskowski and his management team conducted the analysis, they broke job descriptions into three levels: decision making, communication and accountability. Then they divvied up each role into the corresponding functions of strategic, tactical and operational, or what Piaskowski calls the "what, how and do" of the role.

For instance, decision-makers hold strategic jobs that define the "what" of the process. Communicators are tactical and deal with the "how" of the process, and people who have accountability/operational roles handle the actual doing of the process.

The IS brass then rewrote every one of the job descriptions for more than 100 IT employees to align each with one of the three tiers. Each description includes performance-related objectives tied to specific ITIL processes.

Department heads across the hospital took notice. "At first it was a theoretical model but it worked very well and it is now being used in other parts of the organization, outside of IT," Piaskowski says.

Understanding and addressing how individual staff members dealt with change also became critical. Piaskowski spent considerable time communicating the benefits of the reorganization. "You've got to make sure that they understand what is going on and they are comfortable with it. You can't shortchange this stuff, especially planning and communication," he says.

From ageing to new

With everyone aware of their roles, and the processes in place, Piaskowski and his team could get cracking on the technology. "We needed to standardize on infrastructure and get to what I could loosely describe as a 'managed approach'. We had to have something scalable, that keeps [total cost of ownership] down, that we manage centrally and distribute centrally," Piaskowski says.

In addition to standardization, the overall plan was to ready the IS department for the CIS system by virtualizing wherever feasible and managing bobbles in service levels before users could notice them. Piaskowski's team members rolled up their sleeves and upgraded 3500 desktops to Windows XP. They migrated back-office servers from ageing Novell products (such as GroupWise) to Microsoft products (such as Exchange). Then they deployed Microsoft Systems Management Server for change management and Microsoft Operations Manager to monitor server health. They built a 60-server Citrix farm using five physical HP blades running VMware. Set to go live this month, it supports remote access for the smaller clinics and sites.

Application management garnered equal attention. The team deployed Softricity's SoftGrid to virtualize applications. Swedish eventually will manage more than 200 applications centrally via SoftGrid, which separates the application from the underlying operating system while it performs tasks like usage monitoring and software distribution. "VMware virtualizes your operating system. SoftGrid virtualizes the application. Since SoftGrid and VMware are complementary, [we] could run SoftGrid on a Citrix server that is running on a VMware server," Piaskowski says. IT also gets centralized application management with Citrix, because it will be able to push software distributions painlessly out to the far corners of the organization. For security management, the team tapped NetIQ's Security Administration Suite.

While the IS team was at it, it also consolidated Swedish's three disparate storage-area networks to a single 20Tbyte SAN from EMC. It upgraded and expanded storage "to accommodate all of the needs for the infrastructure upgrades along with the growth of an enterprise security camera project", Piaskowski says.

Proactive to provisioning

From the onset of the production rollout, proactive management displayed its benefits. "The first week we were testing some of the tools, we put the system in place and then we started seeing this red flashing. We drilled down and discovered a UPS in one of the closets was reporting a battery problem. Had we not had the new tools, we would have found out when the closet failed all of the users," Piaskowski says.

Emboldened by success, Piaskowski and crew already have raised the bar for its new data centre infrastructure. As part of this initial three-year infrastructure upgrade, the team is working on a custom application for automated security provisioning that will integrate with the human resources systems. When an employee is hired or leaves, this application will create passwords and accounts on the appropriate systems with minimal manual oversight. It also will form the basis of a wider identity management system that eventually will be built on Microsoft Active Directory.

All of which brings the initiative full-circle to the place it started -- its people.

Swedish's new data centre overhaul supports the needy

With three hospitals, an emergency care facility, 12 primary care clinics, multiple specialty clinics and a home-care services program, Swedish Medical Centre seems like anything but a nonprofit organization. And yet it is. Its 7000 employees are joined by 1600 volunteers to serve greater than a half million patients each year regardless of their ability to pay or their medical need, from cancer treatment to delivering babies.

In 2003, the latest figures available, Swedish provided more than $5.4 million in charity care and an additional $27.7 million in other health awareness programs, such as free breast cancer mammograms for low-income women, according to the organization's annual report. Among its dozens of community outreach programs are free health-education centres, discounted car seats for new parents and donated surgery care for the international community. Swedish is funded through corporate sponsorships, charitable donations and fund-raising efforts and any revenue in excess of expenses is reinvested into the medical centre.

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