Hospital CTO identifies virtualisation gotchas

Biggest issue can be vendors who do not properly test their applications before offering them to virtualisation customers

Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children has learned the hard way that virtualization efforts won't be successful if vendors aren't ready to support you, according to its director of technology.

Speaking at a Frankly Speaking breakfast hosted by IT World Canada on Wednesday, Ana Andreasian told an audience of Canadian CIOs that the hospital (usually referred to as "Sick Kids") has already consolidated a considerable amount of its server infrastructure, which now includes 300 physical and 60 virtual machines. Sick Kids employs about 110 IT staff who serve more than 5,000 employees.

Andreasian said the biggest issue she's experienced so far has come from vendors who do not properly test their applications before offering them to virtualization customers. "They'll say, 'Give me one CPU, one gig of memory, and I'm good,'" she said. "Then you'll find they need four CPUs and four gigs of RAM. You wind up having a never-ending discussion on how to solve the performance problems."

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Another challenge have been vendors who say they're willing to support virtual environments, but not fully. "Some vendors have a condition: if you have a problem, you have to move (the application) out of a virtual environment," she said. "That's just not practical."

Sick Kids Hospital is somewhat unusual in that it started its virtualization journey by focusing on storage systems rather than servers. Andreasian explained that the organization currently manages some 150 terabytes of data, which is always on the increase. Devices to handle that data, meanwhile, always end up going out of support.

"We were facing the question: how do you migrate that data? It's a huge cost," she said, adding that no one wants to experience any downtime associated with such a migration. "The tiering has to happen in such a way that's transparent to the user."

The hospital has also turned to Citrix for application virtualization in order to allow remote support, which is important in a hospital situation where many clinicians may need to work from home. Sick Kids is now using VMware to deal with the more common issues around managing server fleets, such as lack of real estate, power costs and the need to provision machines more quickly.

Andreasian said there have been hiccups with applications that are particularly I/O bound. "You need to make sure you can monitor and know that it's fast enough to handle the local storage," she said.

Larry Schmidt, an HP Fellow with the vendor's Enterprise Software group, said asynchronous applications tend to work very well in virtualization environments, whereas others don't. "You need to solve that I/O problem beforehand," he said. "Virtualization just accents it."

Dennis Corning, HP's worldwide senior manager of product marketing for virtualization, added that many firms get stuck because they haven't sufficiently "operationalized" virtualization and made sure the right processes and procedures are being applied.

"In the physical world, if you have good planning and processes in place, that will help you with virtualization," he said.

Andreasian agreed. "Provisioning (a virtual server) is easy. De-provisioning once the business user no longer needs it is where it's difficult," she said. "They might not tell you it's no longer necessarily. You need governance and monitoring and process."

Sick Kids Hospital is currently looking at extending its use of virtualization as part of its disaster recovery strategy, Andreasian said.

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Shane Schick

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