Mercy Ships building a floating data centre to enable a fully-functioning hospital

The non-profit's hospital ships, enabled by technology, provide free lifesaving surgeries for people in parts of the world where medical care is nearly non-existent.

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Africa Mercy

Image: Mercy Ships

Mercy Ships is a non-profit organisation that sends hundreds of volunteers each year to underdeveloped corners of the earth to offer free medical treatment to those in need.

The organisation believes a ship is the most efficient platform to deliver a hospital to regions where clean water, electricity, medical facilities, and personnel is limited or nonexistent, given that more than 50% of the world's population lives within 100 miles of the coast.

Globally, there are around 5 billion people who do not have access to safe, affordable, and timely surgical care, and 80 million people a year die from lack of access to surgical training. With around 300 million surgeries performed each year around the world, only 6% are in developing countries. Mercy Ships has been running for over 40 years in an attempt to close that gap.

At any time, Mercy Ships comprises a workforce of 1,200 volunteers, with 400 staff on ship at once -- everyone from the captain through to doctors and nurses, as well as chefs and IT staff, are not getting paid for the work they are doing.

A visit is typically 10 months, that's after almost two years of engagement with the country Mercy Ships visits.

With bed numbers and therefore lifesaving surgeries limited, Mercy Ships CIO Chris Gregg told ZDNet at Dell Technologies World in Las Vegas on Monday it's important that the organisation maximise the number of volunteers that can treat people, rather than setting up an entire IT team to simply keep the lights on.

"It's a unique mix that brings a level of complexity that's not common -- running ships, running hospitals, volunteer staff, funded by donations -- all of that together makes a really complicated, unique setup," Gregg said.

"So at the core of that we need to ensure that our operations are efficient and effective and technology plays a huge part in the middle of that."

In addition to running a hospital ship, Mercy Ships also provide training for local healthcare practitioners. It even has a school on board that educates the children of volunteer staff. From a technology perspective, the organisation runs apps for managing the ship, as well as monitors a complicated supply and logistics chain.

"We've got a fairly complex set up; our technology focus is really around supporting the backend operations so that the work that you see on ship can be most effective," Gregg continued.

"Our journey from a technology perspective, like many people, has come from the traditional architecture in a data centre on our ships. We have two data centres for redundancy."

The current ship in use by the organisation has been operation since 2007 and Mercy Ships is currently building its sixth ship -- the Global Mercy.

It's the first ship the non-profit has built, with its previous ships all retrofitted or converted from things like cargo liners or in the case of the Africa Mercy, which was an old rail ferry from Denmark.

"That new ship that we're building is a purpose built, purpose designed ship so we were able to plan it. It's a huge project for the organisation, but also from an IT perspective we have a blank sheet to start from and decide how we wanted to approach this," he said.

"With our current ship, we currently still have a traditional server architecture ... [with the new ship] we made the decision about two years ago to move with hyperconverged.

See also: Hyperconverged infrastructure: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

"We really wanted to simplify the data centre -- we don't want our efforts to be focused around running data centres, our efforts need to be around maximising our impact of what we do."

The current ship will also be moving to hyperconverged when it undergoes a refit in the next couple of years.

"We've been planning this ship since around 2008, in concept, so it's been a journey for us," he said. "As it relates to the data centre -- that started making solid plans around 2016."

While that might seem like a long way out to plan for a data centre that wasn't going to be in operation until 2020, a ship isn't an ordinary place for a communications room, and Gregg said Mercy Ships needed to have something that it knew could be somewhat future-proof.

With a turnover of IT staff as well, Gregg said hyperconverged was an obvious solution where managing the end points were concerned.

"Reliability is key -- and scalability for increasing data as well ... particularly the medical area generates an awful lot of data," he said. "We've got radiology, so those images are constantly growing, we also collect a lot of video collateral ... so being able to scale the storage platform was important."

Mercy Ships have seven IT-focused staff on board, and only three-to-four of them are long-term volunteers.

"The rest come and go in a few months at a time so we've needed to focus their energies on hospital support and supporting the medical staff," Gregg told ZDNet.

"A big part of our strategy has been looking at how we can move management and support off-ship and so we're now actually, even on our current ship, managing most of the entire data centre from our office in Texas.

"That's been a really interesting journey to see how much we've been able to do that -- we can spin up servers from Texas in Africa and that's been really helpful, especially when we're recruiting volunteer IT staff and can't have a data centre expert, a network expert, and an application expert."

Gregg started with Mercy Ships on ship as a volunteer. He spent four years on board working on IT alongside his wife who is a nurse, before moving into the CIO role 13 years ago.

Disclaimer: Asha McLean travelled to Dell Technologies World as a guest of Dell Technologies  

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