The Tech Keeping Healthcare Hotlines and Remote Workers Connected During COVID-19

IT systems manager Tom Lockhart explains how Hastings Prince Edward Public Health shifted into crisis mode during the coronavirus pandemic, relying on hyperconverged infrastructure and virtual desktop technology to keep services going.

By Paul Gillin

By Paul Gillin April 16, 2020

When the coronavirus began to spread in March, the staff at Hastings Prince Edward Public Health (HPEPH) in Ontario, Canada, shifted into crisis mode. It was all-hands-on-deck as employees reorganized operations to deal with a surge of questions from nervous residents.

“It was a situation where anything that wasn’t in support of COVID-19 response was set aside,” said IT systems manager Tom Lockhart.

HPEPH is a public agency that offers dozens of programs and services to citizens across Eastern Ontario. The IT department uses virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to allow staff to access electronic medical records (EMR) and other critical applications. As the coronavirus became a pandemic and the government ordered millions of office workers to shelter at home, Lockhart and his agency had to set up new ways of working. Creating a call center to assist the public was a major priority, as concerned people began to flood HPEPH with calls for information about COVID-19.

“We went from business as usual to having to ramp up a large call center in two days,” he said.

The technical infrastructure for the call center was already in place, but getting people trained to manage calls about a novel virus was a big challenge.

“We were pulling people in and training them to be a call center agent, which was new for most of them.”

How Virtualization Saved the Day

Meanwhile, HPEPH had to manage another huge shift: hundreds of staff suddenly needing to work from home. Fortunately, IT staff didn’t have to worry about giving remote access to sequestered employees. That’s because the agency had already replaced a client/server desktop computing model with virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), now powered by Nutanix enterprise cloud software. This technology allows employees to use their computers anywhere and still access business applications and secure data. Rather than running on laptops or other computing devices, applications stream from HPEPH’s data center.

“The way we designed IT is so that we can deliver it from anywhere; we don’t have to have staff on-site,” Lockhart said. “There’s IT staff available to respond to requests, but it’s pretty much all virtual.”

IT maintains full control of applications and can update those applications centrally, so users don’t have to worry about such details. The environment is also far more secure than client/server because malware attacks don’t affect the virtual sessions, said Lockhart. He said having VDI in place allowed HPEPH to pivot from an office to an at-home workforce with little disruption.

“For organizations in a physical desktop model, I can’t imagine how you could deploy something like this in the amount of time we had,” Lockhart said. “I wouldn’t even want to worry about infrastructure right now.”

doctor headset laptop patient headache

The agency was one of the first in the Canadian healthcare network to adopt VDI. Its initial iteration ran on commodity blade servers connected to networked storage. The problem with that setup was that the distributed environment was complex to administer and hard to scale.

“Our goal was to get everybody to VDI because it was too good not to do, but I could also see that, based on the I/O requirements of VDI at that time, it would fail at scale because the storage was too bottlenecked,” Lockhart recalled.

That’s about the time he discovered Nutanix at a tech trade show and experienced the simplicity and scalability of hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI). The combination of computer processing, storage and networking with a single point of management was immediately evident. He decided to shift to VDI on Nutanix.

“I logged in, clicked some buttons and I had a fully functioning environment inside of an hour,” Lockhart said. “Almost immediately I started getting emails from staff saying, ‘I don’t know what you did, but the performance is much better.’”

Nutanix has greatly simplified HPEPH’s data center operations while giving the agency the facility to scale quickly. “Growing the environment is very easy,” Lockhart said. “We just scale with the needs of the business.”

There’s IT staff available to respond to requests, but it’s pretty much all virtual.

Tom Lockhart, IT systems manager, Hastings Prince Edward Public Health

Among the benefits the group has seen are approximately 50% faster desktop performance during peak periods, approximately 50% faster recomposition of cloned virtual machines and more than an 80% reduction in rack space requirements. VDI use has expanded from select use cases to approximately 90% of the provider’s staff.

Keeping IT Operations Simple

VDI vastly simplifies the IT administration workload because technical staff doesn’t have to worry about troubleshooting device driver conflicts, other such quirks on connected devices, or what Lockhart calls the “wacky Mac” problem. People can connect from almost any supported client, including most mobile devices.

“Because you control the entire path back to the data center, you can provide a good quality of service because you’re not relying on [the age or version of] somebody’s client [device],” he explained. “You’re provisioning a standardized, controlled environment.”

The organization operates in a highly regulated industry and relies on Nutanix’s HCI to meet changing needs.

“If we need 100 new sessions, I just provision them and they’re ready to go right away,” said Lockhart.

All the things that create complexity – separately provisioning and managing compute, storage and networking – are things Lockhart and his team don’t have to worry about any longer, because HCI unifies and automates them for simplified operations.

“Press a few buttons and you’ve got additional capacity,” Lockhart explained.

Enterprise cloud technologies are changing how Lockhart and his team manage HPEPH’s data center.

“Simplicity flattens the IT skill set needed, and you can reevaluate the skills you’re looking for,” he said. “We don’t hire experts. We hire generalists because we can reallocate resources from pushing the nerd knobs to applications that provide value.”

Being able to spend less time managing IT infrastructure means Lockhart and his team can spend more time serving business needs.

“Instead of worrying about our infrastructure, I can focus on the workloads running on top of it, and how I can best add value to our organization.”

And that’s just where his attention should be in this time of crisis.

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Paul Gillin is a contributing writer. He is the former editor-in-chief of Computerworld and founding editor of TechTarget. He’s the author of five books about social media and online communities. Find him on Twitter @pgillin.

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