Virtualization hasn't really taken the health care industry by storm, but in the past few years it's becoming increasingly commonplace for organizations large and small to either jump or dabble in storage, server and desktop virtualization by using software to divide physical servers and desktops into multiple virtual environments.

Nearly every health care provider over 150 beds has some form of virtualization in its I.T. ecosystem, according to Jeff White, a principal at Aspen Advisors, a health care consulting firm. That movement has picked up steam as health care executives-and vendors-have gotten over the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) of trading physical iron for software to run key operations, he says.

"A few years ago many executives worried about the reliability of a virtualized environment, and many of those fears were based on health I.T. vendors being reluctant to support their applications in the environment," White says. "But the benefits of it in terms of management and controllability have really proven out, and virtualization has really started being embraced the past couple years."

The reason for that change of heart of the C-level and HIT vendors wasn't based on an epiphany, but a reality: The stunning and accelerating growth of electronic data that needs to stored and processed makes purchasing physical servers to keep up a suicidal financial decision.

Dick Csaplar, senior research analyst, virtualization and storage, at Aberdeen, a research and analyst firm based in Boston, recently surveyed end-users across a number of industries and found that electronic data is increasing 35 percent across the board, and for large organizations the data growth is 44 percent annually, effectively doubling their data every two years.

"Nearly every business process is being computerized, and no I.T. group in any industry can go to their executives and say they need to double their storage capacity every two years," Csaplar says. "Our surveys find that the No. 1 issue facing I.T. leaders across all the industries is how to handle the growth of data."

However, virtualization isn't necessarily a slam dunk. One of its chief selling points has been the potentially enormous cost savings, but HIT leaders at organizations committed to virtualization say they haven't seen much in the way of lower infrastructure costs.

And while those leaders have been effective in selling the other virtues of server and storage virtualization, there is still reluctance on taking the next step to desktop virtualization. In addition, cloud computing is starting to create significant waves in the health care industry, but organizations are still trying to figure out what, exactly, cloud computing is, and if the reliability and security issues can be worked out to enable them to move their data and operations into the cloud.

A feature story from Greg Gillespie in Health Data Management’s May issue, “The Virtues of Virtualization,” examines the issues, costs and payoffs of using the technology.

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