Calgary hospitals communicate on a large scale

E-mail users at far-flung sites within the Calgary Regional Health Authority (CRHA) are finally communicating in a timely manner.

When several area healthcare facilities regionalized in 1994 to form the CRHA, one of the first tasks the technical team took on was uniting the various e-mail products then in use.

“Some facilities had more than one e-mail system. So in total, we had about 13 different…disparate, completely separately-run entities,” said Byron Draudson, senior technical specialist with the CRHA. “They had their own management, their own directors, their own everything. And none of them had ever previously talked to each other.”

According to Draudson, the mail systems were first configured to the “lowest common denominator” so they could communicate via SMTP, which allowed the mail systems to interact.

Each system had previously standardized on different naming conventions, making it necessary for those on different systems to remember each local addressing variant. So the next step in the upgrade was to establish a standard naming convention to deploy across the whole organization, Draudson said.

A mail hub, responsible for readressing all the e-mail and rationalizing different types of attachments, was put in place to intercept and redirect all the messages sent. This made all the mail look like it was coming from a standard naming convention. But this was only a temporary solution, because it added yet another layer of complexity with “SMTP gateways all over the place,” he said.

“So then we not only had to do administration of the separate mail systems, with separate skillsets, but we also had to monitor and maintain the SMTP gateways as well.”

In 1998, with Y2K issues forcing the organization to assess and replace many of their legacy systems, the CRHA decided it was a good time to standardize on one e-mail platform, and chose Netscape for the job.

“The CRHA had a key challenge in trying to bring the organizations into one communication environment,” said Jonathan Tice, senior director of marketing with the Sun

Netscape Alliance in Toronto.

“The Netscape messaging server was written on Internet standards, so therefore it adapts and conforms to Internet proportions and capabilities. That’s important because organizations can’t dictate their desktop environment anymore.”

The biggest concern was finding a solution that would work with all the different breeds of equipment used, said Randy Coates, vice-president of sales with Burnt Sand Solutions Inc. in Calgary, the systems integrator for the project.

“There’s been a menagerie of challenges. The biggest challenge, always, is the organization’s infrastructure – because in many cases, it’s just not what it seems. It has to be upgraded and changed,” Coates said.

“So in the CRHA’s case, there were times when we had to physically stop implementing in a building to wait for the infrastructure people to finish doing their project, so we could actually go install the software. We had to have IP everywhere – and some of the individual health organizations hadn’t got that far yet,” he continued.

“It’s just tough keeping everything current. And not very many companies are flush enough to keep regenerating their infrastructure every three to four years.”

The CRHA’s Draudson said the organization is now offering e-mail training to all users, because this is the first time the organization has had a corporate-wide directory. The Netscape implementation also gave the CRHA the opportunity to do some “housecleaning” with the old messages people had archived. “We decided across the board not to do any automated migrations.”

Although the project is not scheduled for completion until this October, improved message delivery time is already noticeable with the new system, he pointed out.

“Messages sent from User A to User B are delivered in a fraction of one second. Before, with our hodgepodge of systems all paper-clipped together, delivery was not timely. But it’s exceedingly fast now that we are all on one system.”