Thursday, August 30, 2012

More than a bandaid for healthcare IT

Even when trying to steer well clear of the election year healthcare debate by focusing solely on healthcare IT, there are a number of hot-button issues for healthcare CIOs. Electronic Health Records (EHRs), the Health Information Exchange (HIE), HIPPA compliance, telemedicine, as well as more industry-neutral issues like wireless networking and just how the cloud will impact operations are daily challenges in healthcare IT.

Critical data: balancing accessibility with "meaningful use"
Included in the 2009 economic stimulus package's HITECH Act, was a program that requires all providers to demonstrate meaningful use of electronic health records by 2014 or face reduced Medicare reimbursements. Using EHRs before that deadline can bring financial incentives. With both a stick and a carrot hanging over them, EHRs are a key deliverable for IT groups.

According to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), as of May 2012, over 110,000 healthcare providers and more than 2,400 hospitals are using EHRs. About 48% of all eligible hospitals in the US have received an incentive payment "carrot."

Challenges include everything from what software to use, to the hardware to provide users with to access EHRs, as well as a network ensured to be secure, robust, and flexible enough to deal with the evolving landscape. Hospitals are deploying a wide variety of solutions ranging from fixed workstations, semi-mobile cart-based computers, and a wide variety of tablets that can travel with health care professional from room to room. When the sole access to critical information contained in the EHR is over the network, uptime could literally be the difference between life or death.

With large groups of users and diverse equipment to support, using Local Management from Uplogix in healthcare makes a lot of sense. Network infrastructure can be monitored independently of the network itself, recovery actions can be automated, and smaller staffs can support distributed sites with fewer truck rolls. In the 24/7/365 world of healthcare, uptime is a requirement.

Help is on the way? The Health Information Exchange
The HITECH Act also funded the creation state HIEs to help healthcare organizations share data between largely proprietary EHR systems through the Nationwide Health Information Network Exchange. This initiative develops standards and policies for data exchange.

Years of EHR evolution combined with industry consolidation in healthcare is a storm of complexity for IT groups. Not only are they tasked with sharing information across disparate systems, they inherit disparate gear from organizations acquired in mergers.

Uplogix can help here. By managing devices over the ubiquitous console port, Local Management is able to provide monitoring and access to just about any device. As healthcare organizations come together, IT groups can standardize device management across non-standard deployments, freeing up precious time and resources for fighting other IT fires.

HIPPA compliance - encrypt or else
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act predates the rise of IT, and was strengthened by the HITECH Act. It now requires any organization with access to personal health information (PHI) to follow its rules or face increased fines for data breaches. One important implication for mobile IT devices is that it notes that encrypted PHI on a lost device does not constitute a data breach.

New legislation also sets 2014 as the deadline for electronic fund transfer compliance. This means healthcare IT shops are now in the same boat at financial and retail IT groups familiar with PCI compliance.

With much of its early customer base in the financial world, Uplogix has developed Local Management to aid in compliance related to financial information. Whether it's enforcing AAA (authentication, authorization and accounting) regardless of the state of the network, or logging all changes made to devices and their results, Local Management improves overall security and makes it easier to document compliance.

Planning infrastructure to support today and tomorrow
Of course, one of the biggest challenges is meeting hard delivery dates with rapidly changing requirements. IT groups are called to deliver reliable (remember it's life or death) infrastructure to support everything from expectations for wireless, BYOD (bring your own device), and bandwidth-intensive telemedicine applications. IT deliverables have grown from desktops in doctor's offices and nursing stations to mobile devices, high-definition video conferencing in operating rooms and reliable connections from increasingly complicated medical devices for diagnostics monitoring support. The days of long banks of shelves with colorfully-tabbed folders has given way to data warehouses of personal healthcare information with specific rules about how it is stored, accessed and transmitted.

The typical healthcare data center is bursting at the seams. And the HITECH Acts meaningful use requirements may require some organizations to keep patient records on file for as long as 25 years. Moving this information into the cloud  is a clear solution, but will have to answer questions on HIPPA compliance, data ownership, security and always-on availability.

Local Management is an important component of any cloud strategy since utilizing cloud technology assumes that you have a sufficiently strong and available network to access it. While basic information such as shot records and office visits might not be too taxing, add in high-resolution images and high access rates to the equation and even smaller healthcare IT groups will need to provide a bulletproof network. Uplogix and Local Management are there to help out -- after all, it could be a matter of life or death.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Device management flexibility and the hot August sun

Unfortunately no automation here:
Putting a big, heavy antenna
on the roof in 100+ degree sun requires
physical effort.
One of the nifty things about local management from Uplogix is that we generally just don't care what kind of device we're managing. Console connections are available on many different devices from your standard networking gear to satellite communications components to SCADA systems and other machine-to-machine applications. They serve as a base-level management connection to the device.

Sure we have advanced drivers for some of the most popular vendors in networking and satellite, but generally if a device has a console port, we can do some level of data collection, monitoring and automated management. One time I even saw the founder of Uplogix get a glimmer in his eye when he noticed that a large LCD TV had a console port on the back. What possible application could we come up with for managing the monitor with Uplogix? He didn't have one, but the potential was there...

It's pretty common for our customers to ask us about what we could do for new devices. Sometimes it's as simple as plugging in and seeing if a local manager can do what they need right out of the box. Other times we can use existing advanced drivers to enable more robust management.

For example, one of our customers recently had questions about some additional features for managing a VSAT antenna. The antenna is designed to mount on a vehicle roof and is commonly deployed in the Energy industry. They offered to let us borrow one "to play with," and we happily accepted. After all, VSAT stands for Very Small Aperture Terminal. How big could this antenna be?

The next challenge was where to put it. While designed to be roof mounted, the antenna is used in stationary operations, so at least we didn't need to mount it on a truck. The roof of the Uplogix headquarters was the most likely location, alongside a collection of other antennas we have up there for testing.

Action shot! Navigating the elevator door.
Next stop: the roof.
Here is where things got challenging -- this antenna weighs about 150 lbs. and after unbolting it from the large shipping pallet, it's about six feet long by four feet wide and a foot tall. Remember, VSAT is defined as an antenna with a dish less than 3 meters, so I guess it could have been worse. Getting it off the pallet and into the elevator wasn't too tough, but the final flight of stairs up to and through the roof hatch was some real work for four people.

Emerging into the blinding sunshine on the shimmering roof -- after all, we're talking mid-afternoon in August in Central Texas -- we were able to walk the antenna over to its testing location. After about ten minutes of re-mounting the antenna for stability we retreated back to the comfort of our air conditioned offices. Now the real fun will begin as our engineering team "plays" with the new gear to bring advanced local management functionality to a new device. 

What's the moral of this story? If you are already using local management, are we plugged into all of the gear that you care about? If you aren't using local management, check it out. Odds are we could automate some of the routine management tasks that are eating up the time and budget of your IT staff. And finally -- if you work at Uplogix, don't forget your sunscreen in case you get "volunteered" for a trip up to the roof.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Putting remote automation to the test

This week NASA provided a great example of automation with successful arrival of the Curiosity rover on Mars after months of spaceflight and a multi-stage landing process referred to as "seven minutes of terror."

As a company that has developed a unique solution for network automation, it's easy to draw a few comparisons (as well as some significant differences) between the new Mars Science Laboratory and Local Management from Uplogix.

Observing remotely just doesn't cut it, you have to be local.

In the centuries since Galileo Galilei trained his primitive telescope on the night skies to describe Mars as a "spherical body illuminated by the sun," the US and other countries have trained increasingly powerful telescopes and sent numerous satellites to observe Mars. But there are limits to what you can see from afar - clouds obscure vision, dust blowing on the surface changes features, and increasing the level of detail you can observe (bigger telescopes, more instruments) comes with increasing costs.

If you put the lab on the surface in a rover, it can engage in observations nearly full-time. Instead of space-based spectroscopy, the rover can collect and analyze samples directly. And the more capable the rover, the more science you can do with it.

With network management, the traditional methods have involved polling network devices from a remote location. Of course, it's usually less than the 225 million miles (on average) between Earth and Mars, but the key is less the where, and more the how. Relying on the network to monitor network devices is like the fox guarding the hen house. Local management deploys onsite, connecting directly to network infrastructure gear, ensuring directly sampling of information.

Deploying a device with built-in intelligence, memory and a powerful rules engine ensures that you can do more with your automation.

Even when automation is the answer,  sometimes it's hard to let go

The landing on Mars was an incredibly complicated set of maneuvers that required six vehicle configurations, 76 pyrotechnic devices, the largest supersonic parachute ever built, more than 500,000 lines of code, and a final sequence that was dubbed "seven minutes of terror" by NASA.

The precision required plus the radio signal delay between Mars and Earth made it impossible for a human to remotely pilot the craft to a landing -- the entire process had to be automated. Various new technologies invented for this mission all had to perform flawlessly. And they did.

With Uplogix, our automation is basically the same. Alright, it's not apples to apples, but Local Management can take the human involvement out of many routine Level 1 functions. This frees up that skilled technician to innovate or deal with muddier tasks that do require human intervention.

Plus, local management can help you limit unplanned downtime with Surgical Rollback. Say you are working on a device and accidentally push a change that cuts you off from the device. The Local Manager will ask if you to confirm the changes, and upon your lack of response, will roll back the device to it's previous working configuration, reestablishing your connection to the device. Instead of minutes of terror, you can use those moments during the roll back to get some coffee. Or watch a video from NASA.

But I need proof that the automation is working

Due to the planned proximity of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, NASA was able to relay status information on the automated landing and a rover heartbeat in real time back to the control center at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pointed its camera at a position where the rover was mathematically calculated to be passing through in its parachute stage and took a photograph of the event.

On landing, the rover was programmed to take a few pictures and transmit them before losing the relay when Odyssey went over the horizon. The initial thumbnail image was all NASA engineers needed to confirm their success and begin the celebration.

The automation was working, and everyone could see it.

With local management there are a number of ways that you know the automation is working.

Service Level Verification measures network properties from the user's perspective in the network. By polling network gear for status information, or by actually conducting synthetic transactions like voice calls and HTTP-gets between Uplogix Local Managers or the web, we can grade quality on a host of metrics. With this information, automated actions can be taken including notifications back to the Uplogix Control Center.

Like the multiple orbiters staged to catch signals from Curiosity and relay them back to mission control, a key component of local management is out-of-band capability. This ensures you'll always know what's going on, as well as have access to remote gear using POTS lines, cell modems, secondary networks, or even (like Curiosity!) satellite connections.

The automation is working, and everyone can see it. 

The final frontier...

Automation is a requirement these days whether you're landing on another planet, or just trying to ensure that your network is bold enough to take your company where no one has gone before.

One last comparison -- the Curiosity program is designed to drive on Mars conducting scientific analysis for about two years at a cost of about $2.5 billion. But you can deploy Uplogix Local Management a little closer to home, for just about the cost of a nice laptop. See how today.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cloud computing with an intelligent network

The ZK Research paper prepared for Cisco, Why Cloud Computing Needs a Cloud-Intelligent Network, makes some clear points on why the network is as critical (if not more) than any piece of a successful cloud strategy. We couldn't agree more.

For Cisco, that means you need to buy their Cloud-Intelligent Network (CIN) gear, and for Uplogix, it means you'll still have critical network infrastructure that will benefit from automated network management from a local perspective.

Described as an underlying network platform that integrates computing with networking to deliver a world of connected clouds, two key components of the CIN will benefit from local management. The paper describes:
  • Network platforms: This includes access routing, edge routing, and core routing, delivered via physical or virtual appliance where it makes sense. These are the primary infrastructure building blocks of the CIN.
  • Branch WAN services: These are technologies that can optimize application performance and user experience. Branch routers provide a highly secure, reliable platform that scales to small business and branch offices. WAN optimization can accelerate and optimize bandwidth for improved user experience. WAN services are delivered via aggregation routers for multiple network and security services from the WAN edge, as well as network positioning systems to provide application layer recommendations to optimize traffic. This can
    fulfill the vision of the lean branch, with emphasis on survivability services.
This really isn't any new ground for local management. These are the kinds of devices that are currently benefiting from 24x7 intensive monitoring, management and recovery by Uplogix Local Managers.

A couple of recommendations from the paper include:
  • Invest in your network now: Any organization even thinking about cloud should invest in the network today to ensure the foundation is there to transition to the cloud when the company is ready. It’s critical that companies choose infrastructure that can enable the proper level of network intelligence to enable a quality cloud experience, rather than using network infrastructure that is simply “good enough.” When it comes to cloud, a good enough network is no longer good enough. 
  • Leverage the network for cloud success: Legacy thinking considers the network merely plumbing. Cloud computing success is highly dependent on the network. Business and IT leaders must position the network as a strategic asset that will determine the ultimate success or failure of cloud services. A network-first strategy will create the most secure and lowest-risk deployment model for a future cloud strategy.
For more on how Local Management is a critical piece of a successful Cloud strategy, download the Uplogix white paper, Meeting the Network Requirements of Cloud and Virtual Computing with Local Management.