Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio is an integrated network of healthcare organizations serving the greater Cincinnati, Ohio, area. The IT staff, which supports more than 300 applications used by 7,300 employees, was challenged by application conflicts and packaging problems that elongated software deployment and resulted in increased spending on the terminal services environment. By using Microsoft Application Virtualization, Mercy eliminated the need to package applications separately for its desktop computers and server computers, simplifying and speeding application deployment. It can run more applications on its desktop computers, reducing server hardware by 50 percent and saving U.S.$350,000 that would have been spent on new server computers. Mercy improved application performance and cut the time needed to resolve application problems from one hour to just a few minutes.
Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio, a not-for-profit healthcare company, is a member of Catholic Healthcare Partners, an integrated health delivery system of 35 hospitals in the Midwest. Since opening its first hospital in 1892, Mercy has grown into a network of facilities that includes six acute-care hospitals and 35 primary-care and specialty-care physician practices, as well as urgent-care centers, senior-living communities, social-service agencies, home healthcare services, and health and wellness centers. Its commitment to excellence extends from patient care to IT services. Mercy was named one of the “100 Most Wired Hospitals and Health Systems” in the United States by Health and Hospital Networks magazine in 2007, 2008, and 2009.
The Information Services department of Mercy Health Partners of Southwest Ohio is faced with a challenge that many organizations grapple with: the need to do more, faster, and with fewer resources. The IT staffers currently support more than 300 applications that are available to more than 7,300 employees on 4,300 internally managed workstations, as well as on a complex Citrix terminal services farm that is used for both internal and remote access. Application compatibility issues, expectations for faster delivery time, and demands on existing staff made it difficult to package, deliver, and manage applications efficiently.Lengthy Application Packaging
“In addition to our desktop computer environment, we maintained a large Citrix-based terminal services infrastructure because application conflicts made it impossible to install on our users’ computers all the applications that users required,” says David Menifee, Regional Director of Technical Services for Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio. “But packaging software for installation on both the desktop and terminal services platforms was extremely time-consuming and required us to spend more money than we wanted on Citrix software licenses and server hardware.”
Before Mercy began to package an application, the IT staff had to determine which environments the application should run on. For instance, if the software needed to be available within the hospital as well as to remote users, such as those working from home, the IT staff would package it separately for both desktop computer and terminal services environments. If the application required different versions of SAP Crystal Reports or Sun Microsystems Java than were already on the desktop computers—and, therefore, would conflict once installed—it would be targeted only for terminal services.
Packaging an application for both environments took about two weeks and required several IT staffers—people who focus on terminal services and those who are responsible for desktop computers. Then testing began, and that could take up to one and a half weeks.
Sometimes, testing would reveal problems with applications that were originally intended to be used just on desktop computers. “Even though we identified potential conflicts before we started the packaging process, we’d inevitably run into instances during testing where an application targeted for desktop computers would conflict,” says Don Smith, Desktop Architect for Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio. “When that happened, we’d have to give the application to the terminal services group for packaging. And then that team would be under pressure to compress the deployment time so that we could meet our deadline.”
Updating applications was also challenging, particularly when Mercy had to meet regulatory requirements. The organization supports about 12 applications, including a Medicare-mandated application, that need to be updated several times a year. “We get very little notice when these applications have to be updated, and we have no choice but to comply. Because regulation-related projects always take precedence, to meet the deadlines our team often had to put other work on hold,” says Menifee. If the applications ran in both desktop computer and terminal services environments, and on several different client operating systems, the IT staffers would have to package them separately for each platform.
When applications malfunctioned, the IT staff sometimes had to reinstall them and reimage the computer. Reimaging took about an hour, during which time the computer was unusable. “If someone’s computer was being reimaged, he or she would ask for a replacement so that work wouldn’t be interrupted. But there wasn’t always an extra computer available,” says Mark Hekler, Senior Systems Engineer for Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio.Terminal Services Environment Challenges
Running applications in the terminal services environment presented another set of issues. Mercy had to figure out whether the applications would conflict with others already on the server computer, and, if so, the IT team had to install them on different server groupings. “We separated our server farm into groups that ran compatible applications, and we had to make sure that we had plenty of extra servers available in case any of them failed,” says Tim St. Peter, Systems Architect for Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio.
Mercy had 18 separate server groups, with one computer in each group dedicated to redundancy, and a total of 90 server computers. It maintained 700 Citrix licenses. “We needed those licenses to accommodate all of our users. We made all of our terminal services applications available to our entire user base in case employees had to access software that wasn’t on their own computers,” St. Peter notes.
Some applications that ran on the terminal services infrastructure had performance problems. “Users who ran functions that consumed a lot of resources would call the help desk to complain that the application was running slow,” says James Snider, Systems Engineer for Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio. “In cases like this, we had to put the heavy users on a separate server, which meant more server computers were needed to provide redundancy.”
Mercy wanted to simplify application deployment and eliminate the need to package applications for multiple environments. It also wanted to run more applications on desktop computers, which would enable Mercy to reduce the hardware and licenses required for its terminal services infrastructure.Solution
Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio had heard about Microsoft Application Virtualization and thought that it could help address the organization’s application compatibility and packaging issues. Mercy licensed the software in June 2007 and in January 2008 began creating a set of best practices for sequencing applications.
||We’re no longer challenged by packaging complexities or application conflicts. The entire application deployment and management process is much easier.
Desktop Architect, Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio
“Initially, we were going to start by sequencing all of the applications that had been running on our desktop computers, but then we switched to focus on applications that were running in our terminal services environment,” St. Peter explains. “We had dozens of server computers that were reaching the end of their life. By reducing the number of applications that had to run on those server computers—essentially, by virtualizing applications so that they could run on desktop computers instead—we would be able to avoid purchasing replacement server computers.”
In the last quarter of 2008, Mercy began rolling out virtualized applications to desktop computers. It continued to run the same applications in its terminal services environment, as well, until May 2009, using Microsoft Application Virtualization for Terminal Services. “We ran the applications in both environments for peace of mind, in case there were any problems on the desktop computers. But by May, we were very comfortable with the success of our desktop implementation and were ready to stop running all of our applications in both environments,” says Hekler.
To date, Mercy has deployed Microsoft Application Virtualization to all of its 4,500 desktop computers and has virtualized 64 applications. It expects to virtualize 10 more applications by June 2010.
Mercy also plans to use the Dynamic Suite Composition feature in Microsoft Application Virtualization—which enables virtual applications to communicate with one another, share resources such as addins, and be combined in the same virtual environment—to simplify the packaging of software that bridges multiple applications.
Mercy uses Microsoft Application Virtualization for Terminal Services to give employees who work from home, such as transcriptionists, remote access to applications. It runs 35 virtualized applications on 42 HP ProLiant BL20p G2 and HP ProLiant BL20p G3 computers in its terminal services infrastructure, which runs the Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition Service Pack 2 operating system and Citrix XenApp 4.5. The 35 applications are accessed by about 160 concurrent users.Benefits
By using Microsoft Application Virtualization, Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio streamlines application packaging for desktop computer and terminal services environments and speeds deployment. It is reducing the number of server computers needed, thereby saving money. Mercy has also improved application performance and enhanced the quality of its user support.
||By reducing the number of applications that had to run on those server computers—essentially, by virtualizing applications so that they could run on desktop computers instead—we would be able to avoid purchasing replacement server computers.
||Tim St. Peter
Systems Architect, Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio
“We’re no longer challenged by packaging complexities or application conflicts. The entire application deployment and management process is much easier,” says Smith.Simplified Application Packaging, Deployment
Mercy no longer has to package applications separately for desktop and server computers. “We package an application once, and it can run on virtually any platform. By eliminating duplicative packaging, we save several IT team members about four days of work and free them to focus on other projects,” says St. Peter.
Although Mercy IT staffers still test applications using the same processes that they employed in the past, they plan to reduce that testing time significantly. “Even though Microsoft Application Virtualization has worked as promised, and none of our virtualized applications has ever conflicted, we’re still a bit hesitant about compatibility issues because of all the problems that we had in the past. However, as each day passes, we get more secure in the knowledge that the virtualized applications won’t conflict, and we expect to eliminate about two-thirds of the time currently spent on testing,” says Hekler.
Whereas, before using Microsoft Application Virtualization, it took about two weeks to package, test, and deploy applications, Mercy expects to reduce that by up to 80 percent; it should take just two to four days for the entire process.
Accelerating application packaging and deployment will also make it easier for Mercy to meet the compliance requirements of government programs. “Because we can turn the updates around faster, we won’t have to put other projects on hold to meet government deadlines,” St. Peter says.Reducing Hardware by 50 Percent, Saving Money
By eliminating application conflicts, Mercy is able to move about 75 applications that used to run in its terminal services environment to its desktop computers. As a result, Mercy will need fewer server computers and Citrix licenses.
“Instead of publishing all of our applications on the terminal services infrastructure, we only need to deploy applications that are required by remote users. We are reducing our number of server computers from 90 to 42, and the number of Citrix licenses from 700 to just 200,” says St. Peter.
Without Microsoft Application Virtualization, Mercy would have had to replace 48 server computers that are nearing their end of life. Because that purchase is no longer necessary, Mercy will save about U.S.$350,000.Improved Application Performance, User Support
||We just remove [a problematic] application from the computer cache and stream it down again. Instead of taking an hour to fix the problem, it takes just a few minutes—and users don’t have to go without their computers.
Senior Systems Engineer, Mercy Health Partners–Southwest Ohio
Moving applications from the terminal services infrastructure to users’ desktop computers has improved software performance. “Now that the application uses the resources of the employee’s desktop computer, users aren’t affected by other people accessing the same software. We no longer get complaints about slow applications. Everything performs as it should, and that has helped improve employee satisfaction,” Hekler says.
The ability to run multiple versions of an application on the same computer has also enabled Mercy to enhance user support. For instance, one of its application vendors recently sent Mercy four updates to its software—which Mercy deploys to both desktop computers and server computers—during the span of one month. “In the past, it would have taken about seven weeks to package the application updates for both environments, and uninstall and reinstall new versions. And it would have been completely chaotic for our users,” says Hekler. “But with Microsoft Application Virtualization, we were able to package each of the application versions in just a few hours, for use in both environments. Our users had access to all the versions, so that they could explore the new functionality and move to the newest version at their own pace.”
St. Peter adds, “In the past, this type of project would have been overwhelming for the IT staff. But we were able to handle it without a lot of frustration and without aggravating our users.”
The help desk has also seen benefits. “When you virtualize an application, you can essentially forget about it. The application just works; it’s very reliable,” St. Peter says.
If users do experience issues with applications, the Mercy help-desk staff can resolve them faster. “We don’t have to uninstall and then reinstall software or reimage computers. We just remove the application from the computer cache and stream it down again. Instead of taking an hour to fix the problem, it takes just a few minutes—and users don’t have to go without their computers,” says Hekler.Microsoft Desktop Optimization
Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) for Software Assurance makes it easy for an organization to administer its applications, offering tools for virtualizing and inventorying software installations, for managing Group Policy settings, and for system repair and data recovery.
For more information about MDOP, go to: For More Information
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