Health care has emerged as a top reseller market for desktop virtualization, thanks to the popularity of mobile devices such as the iPad and the need to remotely access health records.
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) keeps data off endpoints and in the data center, where IT can have more control over its security -- an aspect important in health care. Virtualization can also trim administrative costs and reduce new hardware purchases, because organizations can use thin clients or zero clients instead of fully loaded PCs. And centralization makes virtual desktops easier to maintain.
“Security is definitely the number one reason that most people are looking at it,” said Nathan Coutinho, enterprise solutions manager at CDW. “Cost reduction is number two.”
Unique factors drive health care VDI projects
In the health care sector, data breaches exposing personal health information (PHI) have attracted negative publicity and lawsuits. Hospital budgets continue to be tight, and resource demands stemming from electronic medical records and the upcoming migration to the International Classification of Disease 10th revision complicate matters.
Another factor influencing health care VDI projects is years of technical familiarity. Application virtualization has been popular in hospitals and group practices for a while, according to channel executives. Electronic medical records systems from such vendors as Cerner and Epic Systems often run on a central server and are remotely accessed via the remote desktop protocol (RDP) using Citrix Systems technology.
“There are strong desires to centralize applications and be able to deliver them to thin clients inside of a health care environment where clinicians are basically roaming room to room needing access to patients’ data,” said Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions Inc., a Fairfax, Va.-based virtualization solution provider.
Current technology trends, such as the rise of mobile devices and the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement, also fuel health care’s desktop virtualization push. Health care VDI projects help organizations accommodate all manner of tablets and smartphones, while adding a measure of security.
Mike Garzone, solutions director at CTG Health Solutions, said desktop virtualization improves security by allowing IT to centrally manage security policies in a virtualized session.
“Because the session is virtual, intellectual property and PHI never leave the data center,” Garzone said. “It never physically resides on the device, so there is no leakage through the endpoint device, which is very good for hospitals that continue to increase mobile access.”
The end of Microsoft’s support for Windows XP in 2014 is another driver, because desktop virtualization can simplify the operating system migration process. Organizations won’t need to immediately upgrade hardware to accommodate the demands of Windows 7 or Windows 8 if those OSes are running as part of a virtual desktop.
“BYOD and Windows XP were not issues on the radar three years ago,” Garzone said. “I see more entities moving forward with it, where they may have been on the bubble in the past.”
Health care VDI project caveats
Health care VDI projects, for all their potential benefits, also bring some challenges. Security is one example. Virtualization secures data by keeping it off endpoint devices, but IT still needs to control and monitor who can access which virtual desktops and applications, Garzone said.
The cost of deployment presents another issue. Desktop virtualization calls for a big initial investment, and it takes time to realize a return on that investment, Garzone said. A well-managed health care VDI project rollout can generate cost savings, but organizations should resist the urge to add a ton of new terminals, because device costs lengthen the time it takes to achieve ROI, he added.
The virtual desktop price tag may prove beyond the means of smaller clinics and practices. But products such as Citrix’s VDI-in-a-Box offer a lower-cost option that doesn’t require a storage area network, Coutinho said. Client hypervisor solutions offer another way to go. For example, Microsoft plans to include Hyper-V in Windows 8.
“Smaller clinics would be able to deploy both VDI-in-a-Box or client hypervisor solutions,” Coutinho said. “Some training and setup would be required but would be significantly less complex than a traditional data center-class VDI solution.”
About the author
John Moore is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based freelance writer, reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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