A Better Window on SaaS and Hybrid Apps
Managing the infrastructure "had to be easy," said Leon Ravenna, Millennium Pharmacy's vice president of IT and operations and information security officer. "I have three system engineers. I only have a couple of network engineers. We support, on the network side, approximately 250 VPN tunnels out to customers, and it's mission-critical. If people don't get their drugs, it's a bad day."
07/08/13 5:00 AM PT
Managing applications sprawl has long been a burr in the IT saddle, and the popularity of Software as a Service applications hasn't exactly been a balm.
As with on-premises applications, the key to SaaS and hybrid apps is getting better visibility and operational data on the applications' health and then automating the processes across standardized methods and controls.
Easier said than done.
This podcast examines how an online pharmaceutical services provider, Millennium Pharmacy Systems, has successfully deployed mission-critical SaaS applications and then implemented advanced IT management and operational efficiency processes and systems to keep all the applications up to date, compliant, protected and performing well.
Leon Ravenna is Millennium Pharmacy's vice president of IT and operations and information security officer. This interview is moderated by Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Listen to the podcast (23:49 minutes).
Here are some excerpts:
Dana Gardner: You deliver your value via SaaS. What has become key about managing the applications well?
Leon Ravenna: Depending on what the customer needs, we may set up the entire environment for them -- networks, wireless, scanners and printers -- or they get to us through their own equipment and Internet connections, but it's all SaaS.
Our SaaS application has 250 separate SQL databases on seven SQL Servers running in a VMware environment, and that helps me dramatically cut my licensing cost for SQL Server and helps to manage them in a high-availability way.
I've been here about 14 months. One of the things that we looked at doing right, when I came in, is taking both the data centers that we have -- one is owned and one is a co-located facility -- and eliminating a lot of the older hardware that we had.
What we looked to doing first was consolidating, getting rid of the older hardware and moving us to a much better state. We are now about 85 percent virtualized. Our primary data center is for our customer-facing application, a SaaS application, built on SQL/.Net and Silverlight, for about 250 nursing-care facilities on the East Coast.
Gardner: What have you gotten, in addition to efficiency, perhaps in terms of reliability?
Ravenna: We had a couple of older Dell blade chassis, and inevitably you would lose the power supply or a server, and I just don't have that now. From an operational standpoint, it just helps to be more efficient. It has the ability to turn new servers up faster. It's not something that we do all the time, but it helps me be much more efficient. I have a fairly small staff, and my goal is to let them sleep at night.
By having more VMware in place, as I said, about 85 percent virtualized, it allows me to do that. If the server fails, the applications move to a different server. I have the ability to upgrade the servers on the fly. It allows me, from an operational standpoint, to be more secure in what we're doing, and it helps me lower my cost, because I am not as worried about my HVAC. I have less equipment to worry about. I have less break-fix to worry about. All in all, it helps me be remarkably more efficient.
Gardner: Let's learn a bit more about Millennium Pharmacy.
Ravenna: We host a system for about 250 nursing-care facilities. This basically controls all of the medications that a patient would need. It does our medical reordering and passes that information in an entirely integrated fashion back to our in-house systems for billing and filling of prescriptions.
As a patient, you don't have much time with your nurse. The nurse is typically gathering your drugs. We have our own pharmacies that service those homes. We deliver, in a cellophane sealed package, your medications.
These packages say, "Mr. Smith, take this at dinner time." There's a barcode for every drug, and when the nurse gives them the drug, they use a wireless scanner to scan that barcode and it automatically reorders the next set of drugs. We give patients about a three- or four-day supply, as opposed to 45- or 90-day supply, which cuts the cost for the nursing care facility itself. Then, we manage all of that data back to our other systems that manage the filling of new prescriptions and billing, and then we deliver every day.
The healthcare space is fairly stringent and getting more so with the new HIPAA regulations. New ones just came out on March 26 of this year, and the enforcement and penalties are much greater. There's some significant items that have changed, but really it's the enforcement and penalties, things around encryption and protecting customers' data.
We also have to protect confidential information, and so we need to be very secure. We're working to implement the new HIPAA regulations so we can be even tighter in that space.
Gardner: This is all done through SaaS and cloud. There are no on-premises installations of your application. Is that right?
Ravenna: Only one facility out of our 250 has their own system. They are large, and one of their requirements was to have their own, but we support the rest of them, approximately 250, all cloud-based. They can get to it from their Internet connection.
Gardner: We're talking about being mission-critical, people getting their medicine. We're also talking about being highly efficient. What were some of the requirements in terms of the infrastructure, particularly as we look now towards managing so many different instances and the ability to be agile and fire up new versions of VMware and to get those apps up and running? What were some of your requirements just from a management perspective?
Ravenna: It had to be easy. I have three system engineers. I only have a couple of network engineers. We support, on the network side, approximately 250 VPN tunnels out to customers, and as you said, it's mission-critical. If people donít get their drugs, it's a bad day. We take that mission very seriously, making sure those systems are up and running.
From an operational or management standpoint, we really need to be monitoring to know what's happening and when. Having VMware in that mix gives us the ability to make things consistent, but it also helps to reduce our cost from a licensing standpoint and helps us manage them better, because we can see what's happening at any given moment.
One of the nice things about VMware is that it's just rock solid. We're kind of weary of knocking on wood, but it's rock solid for us. It gives us the ability to move applications on an as-needed basis. We can upgrade things on the fly.