Mater Health stabilises application environment with VDI upgrade

Mater Health Services has launched into several projects, including working with Citrix to upgrade its virtual desktop infrastructure, and moving from Windows XP to Windows 7.

When Microsoft announced that it was going to end support for Windows XP, many enterprises using the platform were left scrambling. One of these was Mater Health Services, which is currently approaching the halfway mark of moving its 2,200 desktops across to Windows 7.

Mater Health Services CIO Steven Parish told ZDNet that if it weren't for Microsoft's decision, the business would likely have continued using XP.

"Healthcare is traditionally quite behind the times when it comes to the adoption of technology, especially with upgrades. We would only upgrade from XP to Windows 7 because we have to, otherwise it's still working; if it's not broke, don't need to fix it," he said.

With many of the Australian hospital's 2,000 applications being custom, Parish said a key challenge has been trying to work with vendors to ensure that the applications would be compatible with Windows 7, such as some existing web-based applications that will only work on Internet Explorer 8.

"When we say we want to upgrade, there's a lot of effort into assessing the application, talking to the vendors about what they will support and won't support, and assessing the risk. There's also potentially making the call that while the vendor won't support us on Windows 7, we just have to do it, because that's the right thing to do, because we can't maintain applications on old operating systems," he said.

Parish added that moving to Windows 7, rather than Windows 8, was more ideal, because it meant that training requirements would be minimal for end users.

"We had to test our legacy applications to understand the risks involved before moving to a new operating system -- given Windows 10 has yet to be released, it made sense to move to Windows 7," he said.

Looking ahead, Parish said the hospital will look at moving to newer operating systems before Microsoft removes support, but noted that before it does, Mater Health Services needs to ensure that industry healthcare vendors have tested, certified, and can support this move.

The silver lining to diving into the project has been engaging the organisation and forcing users to question their use of certain applications, said Parish.

"For example, with Microsoft Project and Microsoft Visio, we were running three or four different versions of each of that software. Now, we're saying we support only this version of the application, so we're actually forcing the organisation to repurchase if they need it, or question whether they need it and decide for themselves whether they want that application moving forward, or if they have no more use."

Mater Health Services director of infrastructure services Peter Nominkos added that another key aspect the hospital had to take into consideration after Microsoft ended XP support was security.

He said that while desktops transition onto Windows 7, the organisation has had to be more active in maintaining a secure firewall and updating virus protections for the remaining desktops running XP. This has involved maintaining a lockdown environment so that staff members cannot install their own applications.

"We run a very restrictive environment, so we have done some risk assessments around that, and we're comfortable at the level it is at the moment," he said.

Another project the organisation is currently in the midst of completing before the end of the year is upgrading the hospital's entire virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to improve the manageability of the environment's desktop applications.

"The infrastructure we had before it was one of those traditional establishments of VDI where you had your CPU workload separated from your storage and network, and it was an infrastructure everyone was comfortable with, because you could install it and you knew it was going to work," he said.

"But with VDI Mark 2, it's an improvement on the previous technology, because we're now very scalable and very quick to respond to demand, and highly available."

The results of the upgrade, according to Parish, have already started to show, such as in the hospital's cancer research centre, which completed the move to VDI. He said it has provided value for physicians, as they go from patient to patient.

"Traditionally, they'd go from pod to pod and have to log on to the computer and it could take anywhere up to two minutes at each pod, whereas the virtual desktop takes less than 10 seconds," he said.

"This mean that they are able to transition the apps, where they might have applications opened on one device, and when they go to the next pod and they log in, all those apps they had open they can access them in real time, without having to to reopen them," he said.

At the same time, the upgrade has also been rolled out to desk-bound staff, adding mobile and remote access.

"Traditionally, doctors have had to come to the hospital because they're on call 24 hours a day. So they can get a call at 2am, and in order for them to actually assess the patient, they would have to drive into the hospital. But then there are rules around how long they have to be at home before they come back to work.

"Now we've been able to minimise that so people aren't coming into work anymore, and are able to do it from home by accessing the information via their Citrix session. When they make the decision, they can call the hospital to get the staff on site to do the care that's necessary."

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