As senior vice president and CIO of Seattle Children’s Hospital, Drexel DeFord sees himself as a health care provider who just happens to work in information technology.

Indeed, DeFord’s stated goal is to minimize the technology footprint at the hospital so that all the institution’s energies are directed at one goal – healing sick children. “I want to get technology out of the way,” he told attendees of HIMSS12 Conference in Las Vegas.

To execute that vision, DeFord has set about replacing the hospital’s desktop computers with virtual desktops running on zero-client devices. Based on technologies from Cisco, Citrix and Wyse Technology, DeFord likens the set-up to a dumb client terminal from the mainframe era or, in a more modern parlance, a “private cloud.” Using a phased approach, the hospital has replaced 3,000 desktops and laptops, with some 1,500 yet to go.

While the end user gets the same screen, peripherals, applications and Windows 7 operating system, DeFord gets the ease and cost savings engendered by centralized management. He called the hospital’s legacy PC environment, with its constant need for patches and occasional hardware breakdowns, a “millstone.”

“We knew we had to figure out how to get out of the business of maintaining PCs,” he said.  The early results have been encouraging: DeFord estimates the hospital will save $5 million in computer replacement costs over the next five years, as well $1.2 million in personnel costs related to the upkeep of PCs. Moreover, the zero-client devices from Wyse are durable and draw only 7 watts of energy, compared with 70 watts for a traditional desktop. DeFord estimates this will shave about $1 million off Seattle Children’s energy bill over the next five years.  

Yet, the benefits are not merely economical. A virtual model provides benefits in areas such as disaster recovery. Since all data is stored centrally on redundant servers, researchers at the hospital need not worry about losing years worth of data due to a crashed hard drive. Another benefit is the ability of workers to instantly access their desktop from a colleague’s workstation or even a mobile device. “This has changed the game for our clinicians,” DeFord said, estimating that this ability to work from anywhere saves providers 45 minutes per day. “We changed their workflow.”

DeFord did provide some caveats. For one, not every desktop application can be virtualized. Another concern is the temperamental nature of networks. “A rock-solid internal network is a requirement. The Internet isn’t always there.”

 

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