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Virtual Improvements

May 1, 2006
by Anthony Guerra
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Idaho's St. Luke's Regional Medical Center embraced application virtualization to empower users and reduce downtime.

St. Luke's Regional Medical Center — Idaho's largest healthcare provider serving more than 325,000 patients a year — recently selected Boston-based Softricity's virtualization platform to expedite deployment and management of over 200 applications for more than 3,500 users across the organization.

Sheryl Bell, director of information technology at the healthcare organization, is responsible for supporting a full suite of internal customers, including the doctors, nurses, and administration staff of a five hospital system, plus a number clinics. She recently talked with Healthcare Informatics Managing Editor Anthony Guerra about her moves to make St. Luke's technology more user-friendly to its internal customers.

How did the process begin that ultimately ended with you signing the Softricity deal?

This is the answer to a fairly long-term strategic goal for me. About six years ago, I set seven strategic initiatives for the IT department to streamline the way that we do business. One was to do server consolidation; one was storage-area networking; one was to get control of the desktop. When we identified that strategy, there were several things that I identified that I wanted to accomplish out of that. We tried two or three different tools and had not been able to accomplish the things that I had identified, and I will share with you what those things were.

One is we have a very, very complex computing environment, because we have over 200 applications and a number of them are delivered by different vendors. So they deliver them on different operating systems, on different database platforms, different versions of operating systems. So we have run into an issue where in order to accommodate the vendor specifications, some of our customers would have to have specialized workstations in their areas, because they would require two different applications that didn't play well together on the same desktop. So one of my goals was to find a product that would allow us to deploy any application to the desktop without having to worry about that conflict.

The second thing was I wanted the opportunity to have the desktop follow the customer wherever they went, so that no matter where you went you could have your desktop delivered to you without having issues about the configuration of the desktop or being concerned about what the client has loaded at the desktop.

The third one was, because we have such a complex computing environment, we didn't have the opportunity when we were doing an upgrade to those complex vendor applications to have the customer — the end user — be able to test at their own environment. So we had to build these complex test labs and then schedule time where 10-20 customers could come to a test lab to test the application. I wanted the opportunity where we could put both versions of the application on their desktop in their work area so that they could take an hour out of their normal workday and test but still be in their normal environment.

Then, of course, there is the help desk. We wanted to be able to just walk in and replace the device, have the device just become a commodity — that you walk in and replace any device and you load the desktop to it. And so those were our goals

When did you begin this process?

We started this six years ago and have tried three different products. One was Zen for desktop (from Boston-based Novell), and we tried three iterations of that. It would give us a piece of the functionality but never everything we wanted.

When did you start the search that led you to Softricity?

When we started a fairly significant migration project in our infrastructure, we still had a lot of Novell infrastructure and we were migrating to Microsoft. One of the goals of that migration was to find a solution for the desktop, not just trade the Novell ZfD product for the Microsoft SMS product. My engineers went out into the marketplace to start looking for something that was a cut above — that was completely different from anything we had seen before. They came back to me very, very excited about Softricity, thinking that it actually would meet all of the requirements I had designed. That was about 18 months ago.

Can you talk about the other finalists?

Actually, Softricity was the only one we found that my engineers thought would do what I wanted. Very candidly, when they first brought it to me and told me everything that it could do, my response was, 'I don't believe it, and I'm not interested, and we're not going to waste a bunch of money and time on a product that won't perform.' So the engineers went away, they came back about four months later and said, 'Would you please give us another chance to sell you this.'

So I sat and listened to them for a while and said, 'OK, I'll tell you what: You ask this company if they will give us an opportunity to prove this to me. I will name the applications that I want you to be able to deploy to a desktop. If you can do that in the six weeks that I will give you to do the test, then we'll talk.' And they did it. I was shocked because I gave them every impossible application we had. Softricity put a team with my team and they put their heads down. It was about four weeks later that they said, 'Would you like to see a demo?' and there it was. And I was shocked.

What has the implementation process been like?

We're just going through implementation now. We had to go through the whole selling it to our executive staff, which quite frankly wasn't a tough sell. We've got our team together and right now they're building the infrastructure and quite frankly everything is going almost frighteningly well — just kind of going like clockwork.

Does Softricity function as the platform that all the applications sit on?

It actually acts as the management system like in storage area networks. Softricity is the tool that manages your desktop, and so you have the opportunity to profile applications and then you deliver the application to the desktop when the customer needs it, so you are not actually ever installing the application client on the desktop. It segments the desktop virtually — it's true virtualization of the desktop — and it segments the desktop so it looks like a number of different PCs running independently. So they don't conflict with each other.

What's your timeframe for implementation?

We want to be fully implemented by the middle of '07. By the end of our fiscal year, in September, we will have Softricity infrastructure (supporting) the complex applications that are causing us challenges today where we have multiple workstations we've had to deploy. We are being methodical in the way that we're going at this, so we get biggest bang upfront.

When will the users see a change? When will they have to do things differently?

They'll begin to see changes in summer, in the middle of this summer, and what they will see are very positive things. Number one, they will see all of their applications delivered to a single desktop. There won't be special PCs in their department where they have to get up and walk to a different PC in order to access a certain application. Things will be right on the desktop.

The other thing they will see as we do upgrades to their applications is that they will no longer have to get up and go to a training lab somewhere. We'll be actually putting the upgrade on their desktop and training them at their location. Probably the biggest thing they will see is that today, if there's a problem on their desktop, and we send an engineer to do work on it, and because the applications are actually loaded on that desktop, sometimes the desktop engineers will spend two to four hours troubleshooting at the customer's workstation. In the future, we will have spare devices, spare PCs, (and) they will become a commodity where, when we get a call of a PC that's in trouble, the engineer will take a new one out, set it on the desktop, and pick up the old one. Then when that desktop is turned on, the customers will see their applications loaded to them. We will take the troubled device, the broken device, back to our repair shop and all of that troubleshooting will go on without the customer ever being aware of it.

You said your engineers went out. Did you hire any consultants to help you with this process?

No. What we did is we brought in some very high-end engineers and trained them. But Softricity is helping us with the project. We purchased installation services from Softricity.

Can you tell me about the cost involved here?

I actually not only said 'No,' but "Hell no,' when I saw the original price. And then we went back and did an ROI, and when we looked at what it was costing us today for support, what it was costing us in multiple workstations, what it was costing us in turnaround times, the time that we spent with the customers, it was a no-brainer.

We didn't even do a complete true CTO (cost of ownership), we just did a traditional ROI — which is figuring out the number of devices that we can support with how many engineers; what's our turnaround time for things like upgrades and new products. We figured that this is about an 18-24 month payback. It's pretty funny because the engineers did the ROI, they were so passionate about this that they actually came back and did the cost structure for me.

What's some advice you might have after going through this experience?

I would say trust your engineers. Get a few very strong engineers who understand analysis concepts and really charge them with coming up with a solution, because I was very impressed when they came back with the passion that they had for this project, and then I would also suggest that you not just take the salesman's advice. Do what I did and say, 'Here are the applications that I'm troubled about, prove to me that you can do this.'


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