Revamped setup heals tech woes

In 2001, Dale Maw, the recently hired regional director of information technology and telecommunications for the Niagara Health System, faced a monumental task.

By 2004, Maw and his IT team had to connect more than 1,500 desktops, 15 domains and 160 servers across eight hospitals that had no existing WAN connections to one another. On top of that, the eight Niagara Region hospitals, which were being amalgamated as part of the provincial government’s plan to improve the health system, had a potpourri of systems that were incompatible with one another.

Despite the difficult situation they faced, Maw and his team managed to complete the project this June, on schedule. The first step in getting the eight hospitals talking to one another was to set up a WAN. When Maw came on board, NHS had just begun setting up point-to-point wireless connections between the eight sites to create a metro area network.

NHS looked at services from telecom providers, but the providers couldn’t offer the bandwidth NHS wanted at a reasonable price, Maw explained. “We wanted 100Mbps between our major facilities,” he said. “Our data centre is physically in a different building, so we wanted high-speed connections.” The next step in the project was to assess the IT infrastructure at each of the eight hospitals and figure out how to connect the disparate systems. Ultimately, the senior engineer on the project recommended NHS set up a completely new IT installation.

“Each of the sites had between zero and 20 years of experience with a variety of platforms,” Maw noted. Some were running Unix on AS 400s. One of the smaller hospitals was running an operating system from a company that had gone out of business.

Another was running an old Microsoft NT 3.5.1 platform. And yet another had a completely proprietary system running on old Data General gear. “It was quite a mess, to be honest,” Maw said. NHS ultimately decided to install a Microsoft Windows Server 2000 platform to bring the hospitals together.

Most Ontario hospitals run Microsoft environments and the Ontario Ministry of Health is also a large Microsoft user, Maw noted, and since NHS had to share information with facilities across the province, it made sense for NHS to have the same tools as most of the health community. “For healthcare, Windows was it,” he said. “We had some Linux and other operating systems running in-house, but when it came right down to it, we couldn’t afford to support multiple operating systems.”

The healthcare industry is a major part of Microsoft Canada’s business, noted Jordan Chrysafidis, director, Windows Server system. One of the keys to Microsoft’s success in the health sector, he said, has been to recognize that hospitals tend to be very cost-conscious.

“Typically they end up running a lot more legacy software and hardware than we’d see in other verticals,” he said. After setting up the Microsoft servers, the NHS IT staff established a new domain in Active Directory and began migrating each department to the new domain.

The next step was to replace all of the hospitals’ desktops with new machines running Windows 2000. Introducing hospital staff to the new operating system and applications was actually more difficult than moving the data, Maw said. “We focused more on the end user community,” he said. “Whether they believe that or not, I don’t know. We spent a lot of time trying to understand where they were keeping their data and what they were using the tools for.”

From a server pool of 160, NHS is now down to around 100 servers, Maw said. Despite the move to Windows Server, most of the old systems are still in place, because the information can’t easily be ported to the new environment.

“In some cases we had to wrap new technology around the older technology,” he said. For example, at one of our sites, it won’t run on anything other than Windows 95. So we’ve used some software tools to set those Windows 95 boxes up in the data centre and we have the end user community sort of remote control into those boxes.”

Consolidating the eight hospitals on one network will result in savings of over $500,000 by concentrating IT staff and reducing the number of servers, Maw said. It should also improve the way hospitals can serve patients, he explained.

“It’s a huge value for physicians and patients to be in Port Colborne, Ont., go to the hospital there and then when they visit their home doctor in Niagara Falls, Ont., that doctor can see the results from the Port Colborne visit.”

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