Virtualisation cures Windows XP migration woes at Southport and Ormskirk NHS Trust

By Danny Palmer
08 Aug 2014 View Comments
NHS England to forge ahead with 'unchanged' plans

For many organisations within the health service, Microsoft's end of support for Windows XP created a challenge. This was no different for Southport and Ormskirk Hospital NHS Trust, which saw a number of PCs still running the now-obsolete OS.

However, rather than view it as a hurdle, Jimmy Parker, development office lead at Southport and Ormskirk NHS Trust, saw it as an opportunity for a new start, one which transformed the way staff use IT.

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"We had to get rid of Windows XP but we also wanted to do something that wasn't just swapping out PCs for new machines with Windows 7, because we realised that [the] computers as they were weren't suitable for the way clinicians need to use IT, mainly based around speed of access to information," he told Computing.

The Trust therefore opted to examine the use case for desktop virtualisation, which involved an extensive proof-of-concept trial as part of the tendering process, which Parker explained was necessary in order to convince NHS bosses that the strategy was sound.

"One of the hardest things was selling this inside a Trust because Trusts are generally risk averse. In order to convince people, I had to run extensive trials and both VMWare and Dell were really good with that," Parker explained, adding that free licences of Liquidware Labs ProfileUnity enterprise virtualisation software played a key role in the successful trial.

"Liquidware Labs gave free me trials for their product and kept extending them when I asked, which was really helpful. Because one thing I've got to do is convince people around the Trust that this is worthwhile, that there's a use for it and it's not going to cause problems."

Parker told Computing how the combination of thin clients and a virtual interface has helped improve efficiency, with staff now being able to access their files almost instantly from anywhere in the hospital.

"Session roaming, where your session follows you around because it's linked to your username and running on a server in a data centre, means you can connect from any location and any device.

"That allows consultants to move from their office to the ward with an iPad and run Windows applications and not have to restart and re-log into those applications," he said, describing this ability as a "big feature that speeds up access".

Southport and Ormskirk was also attracted to virtualisation because of the security it offered, in that data is no longer stored on hard drives so cannot be lost or stolen as easily.

"Virtual desktops use zero [ultrathin] or thin devices and those don't contain any data and are useless outside our network. Therefore, if one were stolen, we're not too worried about the possibility of losing data and that avoids having to pay large licences for encryption or other types of security software," Parker said.

Ultimately, he explained, use of virtual desktops has allowed doctors to more efficiently get on with their work without IT getting in the way of important medical tasks, thanks to a system which enables staff to re-log in to applications in a matter of seconds.

"Wards are highly patient-focused, busy environments and the last thing clinicians want is a load of IT people there all the time, swapping out PCs," said Parker, who added that the virtual nature of the units means IT now spends less time on maintenance.

"If the devices break, they can be swapped out very quickly, even sometimes by the staff on the wards. It massively reduces the impact on us having to visit the ward and [represents] a massive reduction in the support from those areas as well."

The nature of the virtual interface also provides users with a smoother experience and one that doesn't need constant maintenance in order to remain efficient, Parker explained.

"We're only saving the things the users need to have saved, so they can roam and then we destroy that desktop when they log off, so we don't have to support ancient Windows installs," he said. "It reduces the amount of management products we have to have on them because we use VMware's thin app virtualisation product."

Parker, who previously installed a VDI system at Aintree NHS, revealed that the success of Southport and Ormskirk's desktop virtualisation scheme hasn't gone unnoticed within the NHS, with others keen to follow suit.

"Other Trusts are contacting us," he said.

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