The Changing Role of the Healthcare Data Center

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Todd Boucher is the Principal and Founder of the data center design and consulting firm Leading Edge Design Group and specializes in energy efficient design strategies for data center renovation and new construction projects. He has a B.S. in Management of Information Systems from the University of New Hampshire and is a certified by the US Department of Energy as a Data Center Energy Practitioner. He can be reached on Twitter at @ledesigngroup.

ToddBLedesignTODD BOUCHER
Leading Edge Design

The rapid change in the healthcare industry over the past few years is a great representation of the dynamic and powerful impact that Information Technology can have on business strategy and execution. We have been witness to this impact in how healthcare organizations use and even talk to us about their data centers.  What once was a burdensome operational cost center is now a critical component to delivering quality and accurate patient care, ensuring regulatory compliance, and enabling collaboration and instruction. Stakeholder groups for data center projects that were traditionally comprised of facilities, IT, and security personnel have evolved to include physicians, surgeons, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief of Health Information Management, sustainability managers, compliance managers, safety managers and more.

Growth Leads to Strain

By combining the increase in the number of departments that are affected by and leveraging information technology with the aging infrastructure of most hospital data centers, we can begin to understand the strain that is being placed on healthcare data centers today. However, the scale at which a hospital will need to increase data center capacity and availability has never been greater. Consider the following examples:

  • Federal Regulation – The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) already requires electronic health records to be stored online for a significant period of time. The passage of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act increased the number of patients in the system. Given  that a single MRI is 100 megabytes, we can begin to see how an increase in the access to healthcare will have a major impact on data storage and associated technology
  • BYOD – Strategies for supporting “Bring Your Own Device” vary, but the necessity to support these mobile technologies is expanding rapidly. Practitioners are already using use their mobile devices for video conferencing, clinical tools, and accessing online patient data, and the technologies available to increase functionality of mobile devices in hospitals is expanding exponentially.
  • Big Data – The ways in which big data can be potentially leveraged in a healthcare setting are staggering and encompass everything from collecting and analyzing real-time data from the physical plant to transformational changes in how data is used to make clinical decisions. IDC estimates that the big data business will grow to $34 billion this year, in part because of increased use in the healthcare industry. Although there is still a lack of standardization and interoperability of big data solutions, the need to leverage the technology in healthcare facilities is clear.

Cart Before the Horse?

While healthcare organizations work to collectively choose, procure and implement the systems required to enable these technologies, the capabilities of a hospital’s physical data center infrastructure to support the scale of these deployments are often overlooked. The use of these technologies represents a major change in data center requirements, and healthcare organizations need to evaluate the ability of their existing data centers to deliver the associated availability. Too often, the technology is procured and the implementation planned prior to answering the questions about whether the data center can provide the physical infrastructure (power, cooling, floor space, etc) necessary to support the technology.

Sensible Approach to Data Center Design

The good news is that many existing data centers have the ability to be updated to support these evolving technologies with sensible evaluation, planning and collaboration. In doing so, you can create additional floor space without costly expansion, while also improving your ability to support the density requirements of today’s technologies. To transform to your hospital’s data center into one capable of accommodating the rapid scale and change evident in today’s healthcare environment, we recommend:

  •  Evaluate your existing environment – Like any industry, healthcare data centers struggle with providing HVAC (cooling) infrastructure.  However, in many cases, the amount of cooling capacity in your existing environment far exceeds the amount of IT load you need to support (many times by a factor of 2 or 3). Understanding this ratio of cooling capacity to IT load will help illustrate how efficiently your data center is operating. In addition, it will help you understand the type of density your existing infrastructure can support on a kW/rack basis if your data center was more effectively configured.
  • Collaborate - Ensure that you are actively involved with or have visibility into the technology plan and the associated IT infrastructure that will be required to support it. Supporting the ongoing requirements for things like EHR and BYOD have significant implications on (at minimum) the storage and networking infrastructure in your data center. Evaluate how both the physical footprint and the density of the proposed equipment will impact your data center in the short and long term.
  • Make small but significant changes – Most healthcare data centers can benefit from small changes that will drastically improve energy efficiency, functionality, and compliance with industry standards. Strategies like implementing hot-aisle cold-aisle orientations, increasing supply air temperature, removing unused under floor cabling, and using blanking panels will make a surprising improvement in the operation of your data center space. In addition, it will likely improve your ability to support more density per rack, ensuring more efficient use of floor space and available U space.
  • Retire Legacy Equipment – To improve energy efficiency and available floor space, take the time to physically remove retired equipment from the data center. If this leaves equipment racks with only a few U worth of equipment, relocate that equipment into other available rack space in the data center. In most cases, this will free up several rack footprints of available space.
  • Develop and Implement a Plan for Optimization– Once your existing infrastructure is operating more efficiently and you have generated more available floor space, you can work to develop an augmented plan for the data center. This may involve creating ‘zones’ that separate newer, high density technologies from legacy equipment, or even segregating the data center by application, providing significant space for expected growth in storage with less growth allocated to other IT functions. With proper planning, meaningful changes that provide future scalability can be implemented with minimal (if any) downtime.

Every healthcare facility is choosing and implementing technology based on the services they provide, the unique markets they serve, and how they can best balance regulatory requirements with budget availability. However, it is clear that the means by which healthcare facilities are leveraging technology are exploding, and the considerable implications that this expansion has on an existing data center should be evaluated in conjunction with the adoption of these technologies. With careful and pragmatic planning, healthcare facilities can stretch the life of their existing data center, enable the deployment of advanced technologies and minimize the associated cost.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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