August 8, 2006

Mercy Hospital opens arms to open source enterprise systems management

Author: Tina Gasperson

For almost 100 years a group of women called the Sisters of Mercy have been instilling a spirit of excellence into Baltimore's biggest hospital, appropriately named Mercy. Right from the start, the Sisters have made it their goal to push the medical institution beyond the ordinary by creating teaching affiliations, feeding the hungry, building state-of-the-art emergency services, and launching a neighborhood health center for the inner-city poor. In today's world, all that excellence requires a solid technology infrastructure -- and one open source management package to manage a variety of systems.

Mercy's data center houses more than 200 machines running Windows, Linux, Solaris, AIX, and other, more obscure operating systems. Mercy CIO Jim Stalder says about 160 of the servers are Windows-based, but because the health care services industry is "fragmented," with many essential applications available only on other OSes, he also has to maintain dozens of non-Windows machines.

"We were using everything" to manage the disparate network elements, Stalder says. "It was tedious and time-consuming to manually log in to the different network devices." He knew that Mercy needed to consolidate and streamline its network monitoring and reporting procedures. "Traditionally, we relied on vendors and software maintenance agreements and prepackaged applications," he says. "But we needed something simpler."

That need prompted a look at open source software. Stalder says the hospital had never used open source applications, but some experienced team members recommended a GPL-licensed enterprise systems management package called Zenoss. Initially, there was some resistance from staff members, who felt that Zenoss was a dangerous choice because it lacked a "big sturdy organization that we could rely on for support," Stalder says.

But in testing, Zenoss proved to be so easy to install, configure, and use that it was easy to win the naysayers over. "Once they saw how easy it was, they were sold," he says. "A couple of our guys worked hand in hand with Zenoss to set up the server, configure the various network devices, and do some custom tailoring."

One big benefit Stalder saw with the new open source system was that the dashboard interface helped his support team discover intranet problems much faster. "We have about 35 physician practices around the area that come back to our data center for all their applications. Before, they'd have to call us to say, 'hey, the system's not working.' Now we know there's a network connectivity problem before the doctors do."

Going the open source route has saved Mercy a lot of money. Stalder says that a comparable proprietary solution would have cost 15 times as much as Zenoss. "We didn't have to go out and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a big package," he says. "Some of those packages do a lot more, but at the same time, I don't know if we would have been able to bite it all off at once. You're buying a lot and using very little of it at the end of the day."

Even though Mercy's open source alternative doesn't include all the bells and whistles, Stalder says that future needs should be easy to fill by combining Zenoss with other open source applications. "It will still be much less expensive, and will meet the more specific needs in the environment that we have."

Stalder says that there could be more open source software in Mercy's future, now that the technology has proven itself. But much of that potential increase rests with the industry. "We've had a positive experience. But the challenge for us is that the health care environment is so unique. There's not a lot of vendors doing open source stuff as far as clinical services that we use. We'll still look at it for other things in the future.

"Does the day come when you can replace Microsoft Office with OpenOffice.org, or Windows with a Linux desktop? We're not there yet because so many of our vendors write for and require a Microsoft operating platform."

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