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With the ongoing digitization of healthcare, patient care organizations now generate a significant amount of data, and all that information, from electronic health record (EHR) data to lab tests and imaging exams to research and emails, needs to be efficiently stored and managed.

In today’s evolving IT landscape, CIOs and other healthcare IT leaders are now faced with the challenge of developing a robust data infrastructure strategy to effectively handle all this data, and beyond on-premise data centers, the options now include colocation in an existing data center, hybrid cloud and public cloud solutions.

A research report by The Uptime Institute, a third-party organization focused on data center performance and efficiency, notes that the march towards digital transformation will continue to shape data center approaches across all industries. “Specifically, managers must effectively manage the proliferation of hybrid IT architectures, defined as a mix of on-premises data center capacity and off-premises resources such as colocation, cloud, and hosting. Hybrid IT is now the norm, creating technology, organizational, and management complexity,” the report states.

A survey conducted by KLAS Research published last December found that 70 percent of healthcare organizations have moved at least some applications or IT infrastructure off-premises. While most of those using off-premises computing are doing so through a hosting environment, future plans lean heavily toward the cloud, according to the survey results.

Several years ago, leaders at the Moffitt Cancer Center, a nonprofit cancer treatment and research center based in Tampa, Florida, were faced with the complexity of managing the organization’s steady growth, and the need for an IT infrastructure that keeps pace with that growth.

Established in 1987, Moffitt is a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center that encompasses a 206-bed hospital, with a large ambulatory practice comprised of three facilities, and a nationally recognized research institute, with more than 220,000 square feet of research lab space. Moffitt has 336 employed physicians and 100 independent physicians, as well as about 200 additional clinicians.

Over time, Moffitt Cancer Center has expanded its facility from 373,000 square feet to 2 million square feet, which has, in turn, increased its system footprint and the amount of data generated, accessed and stored. In 2004, Moffitt opened a new data center in the basement of the hospital to house its growing IT systems. However, by 2011, the on-premise server and storage infrastructure was nearing capacity. In the past seven years, the organization has had to rapidly evolve its technology environment and, as part of this evolution, Moffitt leaders have had to rethink the organization’s existing data center strategy.

Seven years ago, organization leaders considered several options, including expanding the existing data center as well as outsourcing its ongoing IT operations to a third-party provider, according to Jennifer Greenman, Moffitt Cancer Center’s vice president and CIO, who joined Moffitt in 2013. “At that time, the organization’s leaders made the determination that a co-location model was the more sustainable, resilient and scalable model to power our future growth,” she says, noting that Moffitt has a large, growing and diverse data set.

Jennifer Greenman

Moffitt partnered with Charlotte, N.C.-based Flexential, a provider of hybrid IT data center solutions previously known as Peak 10, to move some of the cancer center’s data assets to the company’s East Tampa data center facility.

“During that time, we continued to maintain our on-premise facility, and so we were leveraging the colocation facilities for expansion of new technology infrastructure assets as well as some targeted business continuity needs that we have,” Greenman says. “Our rapid infrastructure growth continued from that time to the present day. In 2016, we had a unique opportunity to transition into a newly constructed, state-of-the-art facility that Flexential had built. We made the decision to move our data center environment into the new data center,” essentially consolidating the organization’s assets to one location.

By migrating to a colocation approach, Moffit leadership contend this enables the organization to focus its internal resources on its core competency—patient care. “From an operating mission, our singular mission is to contribute to the prevention and cure of cancer, and that mission is deeply ingrained into our culture and our practice,” Greenman says. From an IT perspective, uptime is critical as Moffitt physicians,  clinicians and other staff members need immediate access to patient records and research data.

With the transition from an on-premise data center to a colocated model, Moffitt leaders were looking to streamline processes and operations, increase redundancy and high availability, lower costs and improve performance.

“[Flexential’s] physical facilities and operational controls provide us with a high degree of assurance in delivering care to a complex population of patients and enabling cutting edge research,” Greenman says.  

To illustrate one of the benefits of using colocation services, Greenman notes that when Hurricane Irma was aiming for Florida in early September 2017, the hurricane was projected to be severe and was tracking at certain points for a path over Tampa Bay. “As we prepared for the event, my team had sincere confidence in the power and structural resiliency of our colocation facility. This confidence was reinforced by the proactive measures that Flexential took in preparing and communicating in the days and hours leading up to landfall,” she says.

The Tampa Bay area was spared a direct hit from Hurricane Irma and Moffitt experienced relatively minor issues across its infrastructure, mainly due to power outages, she says. “Our confidence is so high that we are now moving our disaster recovery services to the collocated environment as well,” Greenman says.

Greenman notes another significant benefit as a result of migrating to a hybrid IT provider: “Our ability to efficiently manage and administer services within this environment is improved, particularly due to the high level of service provided by the colocation partner.” She adds that special power requests are accommodated within days as opposed to weeks or longer, as Moffitt experienced in the past. 

“These processes have had a positive effect on our discipline in managing the data center environment. Also, this model delivers a higher degree of transparency into power consumption, which informs our expense management and financial forecasting abilities. And, the access and audit controls provided are robust and streamlined, which is important for demonstrating compliance with stringent regulatory requirements,” she says.

By migrating its IT operations to Flexential, Moffitt consolidated its infrastructure to a single location during a period of significant growth all while simplifying processes and operations, Greenman notes. As a result, she says, Moffitt has realized improved redundancy, availability and performance.

Flexential’s East Tampa facility is a Tier 3 data center, per The Uptime Institute’s four-tier ranking system. The Uptime Institute has established data center criteria for power, cooling, maintenance, and capability to withstand a fault, across four tiers. A Tier 3 data center features 99.982 percent uptime and a high degree of redundancy and better fault tolerance. “Those standards can be challenging for any institution to construct and maintain on its own,” Greenman notes.

She adds, “This partnership provides us with assurance and resiliency, two of the most important benefits as a healthcare provider.”

Challenges in the Transition to Colocation Services

It is important for healthcare organizations to understand the factors to consider when evaluating a colocation or hybrid IT model and what challenges to plan for in the transition to colocation services.

For Moffitt Cancer Center, the transition  from an internal IT strategy to a colocation approach, or the “journey from the basement,” as Greenman refers to it, required very careful planning.

“Planning becomes a critical success factor, and when working with a third-party company, planning is even more essential. A tremendous amount of detail and coordination also is required to be successful,” she says. “In the healthcare environment, there is little tolerance for operational disruption. Ensuring the transition from one data center environment to another, and ensuring that it’s executed in a seamless way, it’s a very delicate but critical aspect for success.”

The steps involved include coordinating with vendors regarding connectivity and moving technology assets in a way that was not disruptive to operations. In addition to working with Flexential, Moffitt tapped a third-party advisory firm to help with strategic planning. “There is no such thing as too much planning for these types of transitions,” she says, adding, “Another important lesson is to give thought to long-term space and power needs, as much, or maybe even more so, as if you were planning an on-site environment.”

A key principle of any major technology initiative is ensuring that the IT teams and impacted business units are engaged in planning and execution, Greenman says and this holds true when migrating to colocation services. “You need to reinforce the principle that this is an enterprise project; the data center is not just infrastructure and operations,” Greenman says.

When rethinking the organization’s approach to IT infrastructure and data centers, organization leaders also should account for future growth and expanding data needs.

Moving forward, Greenman says a key benefit of the colocation approach is the inherent capacity for expansion, both in terms of physical assets and network connectivity, including to hyperscale providers, which will be a key enabler for future business-driven innovation. 

“We’ll have the ability to very seamlessly, and in a low latency way, connect our data center environment and migrate workloads from our data center environment to a public cloud resource and back as it makes sense for our business needs,” she says.


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