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No CIO likes always having to tell their users no. The key to happiness for Hamilton Health Sciences CIO Mark Farrow has been building a flexible IT infrastructure that means, even if he can’t always say yes, he can at least say “soon.”

Farrow’s situation is somewhat unique. At Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), a family of seven hospitals, a cancer centre and an urgent care centre serving more than 2.3 million people in Southern Ontario, most of Farrow’s users aren’t employees. Physicians are basically independent contractors that need access to HHS’s technology infrastructure.

Mark Farrow
Mark Farrow

“Traditionally, if you wanted to connect in our environment, we’d dictate you need to buy X brand of PC running X operating system and X antivirus software,” says Farrow, who spoke with CanadianCIO during a recent Citrix Systems event in Toronto. “The doctors began saying, ‘I have my MacBook, why do I need to buy another device for you, just let me connect.’”

Farrow and his team thought about it and they agreed: why dictate what device they carry when all they want is secure access to the HHS network? Especially when health care is, by its nature, a mobile business.

“We used to think about mobility as the road warrior. Nobody thought of mobility as being within your walls,” says Farrow. “Yet most of my workforce doesn’t sit at a desk.”

At first, they’d deploy technology at nursing stations, forcing people to congregate, but the people they’re taking care of aren’t at the nursing station. And physicians are cycling between the hospital, the clinic and their office, and didn’t have a good way to access information.

Building the infrastructure

When Farrow joined HHS in 1999, the organization had already been using Citrix Systems technology for three years, which provided a good foundation to start with. They began with using XenApp with a focus on delivering updates to high volume applications across their 6,000 desktops. Then it was expanded to the lesser used or more niche apps.

“The classic for us was when we had an app that needs IE7 and hasn’t been updated, and we’re deploying IE11, so how do I get the three to four people that need to use that app support without providing desktop support?” asks Farrow, saying XenApp makes it possible. “Citrix gives us the ability to stratify that into a layer that’s very homogeneous that we don’t need to worry about.”

The Citrix-based infrastructure HHS built allowed it to be bring your own device (BYOD) before it was a trend, and be in the cloud before it was all the rage, because Farrow says they had the ability to make applications available in a safe environment.

Farrow remembers when the iPad first came out in the U.S. One of his doctors went down to Buffalo to buy one on the first day, brought it in and said he wanted to use it on the HHS network.

“We had him up and running in 24 hours, accessing medical information and charts on the corporate network,” says Farrow. “We didn’t foresee BYOD and iPads, but by having a solid platform, we could leverage these things being thrown at us, react, and still maintain our security posture and protect the personal information of our clients.”

XenApp gave HHS follow-me computing and the ability to deliver access to any mobile device, which was boosted by a major network refresh with Cisco Systems and CompuCom to build a more robust network with a focus on mobile access. Over time they added Xen Desktop, NetScaler and Go2assist for helpdesk support. More recently, they added XenMobile and ShareFile.

To the future, and not having to say no

“For me, it’s now about taking XenMobile and the next generation of mobile device management to even more tightly streamline our infrastructure, so we don’t have as many moving parts to worry about while still providing an anytime, anywhere experience to our users,” said Farrow. “Giving them a storefront to access apps when they need them, having the controls on it do they don’t need to go through help desk anymore. Citrix has allowed me to react to a changing environment and, at the same time, still keep control of my data.”

And it has allowed IT to not often have to say no to a user request, like the doctor with his new iPad.

“Usually it’s not so much no, but when,” said Farrow. “We’ve really been able to leverage a lot of this technology to be able to say yes.”

Happy users, but also happy executives. In an era of tightening health care budgets, Farrow said their infrastructure investments have saved HHS money (over $120 million over five years) by getting more life out of older devices by shifting the compute power to the server.

“HHS runs at two per cent of total operating budget for IT which is extremely low, and a large part of that is being able to leverage technology like Citrix,” said Farrow. “And it allows us to continue saying yes to our end users and do what we need to do, but in a fiscally-responsible way.”