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Boston hospital simplifies server management

A Childen's Hospital of Boston IT manager worried about his servers. Here's how he dealt with server failure and downtime.

For years, Childen's Hospital of Boston IT manager Steven Mullen worried about the health of his servers. He worried that his manual checks on his server configurations wouldn't be comprehensive enough to prevent constant data loss and downtime. More than anything, he worried about the consequences of server failures, which would upset the operations of emergency and operating rooms, admitting offices, and inpatient care.

Mullen has been the computer systems healthcare provider, or PC network operating system manager, at Children's Hospital for six years. He manages the hospital's 85 servers, which run a mixture of Windows 2000/NT and Netware. He also manages 3,500 desktops running Windows 2000/NT/95/98. Children's runs Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS), Systems Management Server (SMS) and SQL Server on several servers as well. The total storage for the hospital is 1.3T bytes out of an available 4T bytes.

For the first years of Mullen's tenure, manual tracking of server configurations was standard practice. In a constant and urgent quest to prevent server downtime, Mullen and his colleague Bill Arrington, information systems specialist at Children's, manually tracked the file and print, application and database servers' configurations. They gathered information from servers directly at the data center, located a few doors down from their offices.

The hospital's computer systems carry a heavy responsibility. Children's Hospital is a 325-bed facility specializing in pediatric care. If the applications running on Children's Hospital systems go down, doctors and nurses cannot keep track of patient records. They must use paper forms and enter the information later. Also, they can't access critical patient records quickly.

During surgeries, Mullen said, nurses rely on computers to keep track of the exact amounts of specific medicines given to patients. If the computers go down, data regarding the exact time intervals of medicine dispersal is lost. Nurses may not remember what dose to give a patient, and the progress of the surgery can be affected.

Just having a file-and-print server go down can be disastrous, said Mullen. Doctors store files on shared servers and print papers directly from the servers. If those servers go down, patients can't be discharged because the forms that sign them out cannot be printed. "The whole office stops when we can't print," he said.

When there was a printing problem at the hospital, Mullen and Arrington often spent hours fixing the servers. After printing problems were resolved, it was often impossible to recover exact printing information, such as who was waiting for a print-out and what printer drivers they were running. Further, "I couldn't always tell which server is running what," said Arrington.

Ironically, Mullen and Arrington had been worrying about and working overtime on server monitoring in vain. One day, in a casual conversation, an IT manager from another hospital mentioned a software tool that eliminated the need for manual server management. The product, called Configuration Auditor, offered baseline reporting, change tracking functions and full scheduling capabilities.

Not surprisingly, Mullen quickly contacted Configuration Auditor's maker, Portsmouth, NH-based Ecora Software. He gathered more information and then decided to bring Configuration Auditor in-house for testing. After a couple months of running every conceivable scenario on the tool, they gave it a thumbs-up review. Configuration Auditor delivered on its promise, eliminating the need to manually gather information from each server, said Arrington.

The duo deployed Configuration Auditor on a Windows 2000 server running IIS. They use a dedicated machine in Arrington's office as the main control console. That's where reports are read and stored.

Mullen is particularly impressed with Configuration Auditor's change log, the "power" feature that drives automated configuration management. If the configuration of a server has changed, the change log report immediately reflects the change. This enables the IT managers to correct inappropriate configuration alternations before any serious ramifications occur, Mullen said.

Every two weeks, Arrington compiles Configuration Auditor's configuration data. Using that data, he runs reports each month, checking on such things as disk space and which network IP addresses have accessed the servers. The process can be done in a matter of minutes. "If I had to gather that information myself, it would take a few hours," he said. "And I'd still have to transcribe it into the computer."

The printing issues that kept the IT managers frazzled have been eliminated. Now, if a printer goes down, "Configuration Auditor shows all the printing information: the queue, IP addresses, what printer drivers are running, which OS is running, and which hot fixes and service packs," said Arrington. Now, it only takes minutes to recover from a failure.

The auditing aspect of Configuration Auditor also helps keep server configurations in check. "Using the GUI, we can truly track configurations and make sure everything is the same," said Mullen. This will come in handy, he said, when the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability act (HIPAA) is enforced. HIPAA auditors may ask Mullen to produce the hospital's configuration quickly, and Configuration Auditor will be the tool he will use. In fact, it would take about a week longer to compile an HIPAA report without Configuration Auditor, said Arrington.

In time-savings, Configuration Auditor pays for itself each month, said Arrington. Even better, the toolrelieves the IT managers' worries about server downtime. Configuration Auditor gives Children's Hospital 99.9% uptime, according to Mullen. "It's a tool that helps me do my job," he concluded.


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