VA soups up its hospital nets

The upgrade, moving briskly at about five sites per week, will give the health care
agency enough processing power for the next two to three years, said Craig Neidermeier,
director of contracts administration for the Veterans Health Administration in Birmingham,
Ala.


VA officials weighed alternatives to Windows NT, Neidermeier said, including Unix and
Digital OpenVMS.


In the end, they came back to NT because they thought operations staff would need less
training, and they figured NT had the best prospects.


This is the second time VA has ported DHCP applications at the 70 sites to new hardware
and software. The first time was in 1991.


The new servers are Digital Equipment Corp. 400-MHz AlphaServer 1000A systems running
NT 4.0 and Open M, a brand of the M programming language from InterSystems Corp. of
Cambridge, Mass.


VA's 100 largest medical centers already have a variety of Digital Alpha servers
running OpenVMS.


They will trade in their PC servers for the faster AlphaServer 1000A models as part of
the DHCP upgrade.


VA has used the M language, formerly known as Mumps, since 1983. Officials saw no
reason to drop a language that has carried them through two server upgrades without
rewriting a single DHCP application, Neidermeier said.


DHCP applications automate most of VA's administrative and clinical information
functions.


When the DHCP apps were first ported at the 70 sites in 1991, 33-MHz 486 Everex Systems
Inc. PCs running MS-DOS took the place of Digital Equipment PDP-11 minicomputers running
Digital M.


Out of nearly 2 million lines of code, the agency had to change only two
lines-"proof that our concept of staying with an American National Standards
Institute standard language has benefitted the VA," Neidermeier said.


For the current upgrade from 486 PC servers running ANSI M to AlphaServer 1000A servers
running InterSystems' ANSI M, VA developers did change more than two lines of DHCP
code-but only to take advantage of NT's multithreading capabilities, Neidermeier said.


VA had never before run the DHCP apps on top of a multithreaded operating system.


The upgrade will give better protection against hardware and software failures with
servers clustered under Digital Clusters for NT software. Each medical center will get
three or four of the AlphaServer 1000A systems.


VA was having no particular problems with its 486 Everex servers, Neidermeier said. But
MS-DOS had outlived its usefulness, and the 6-year-old server hardware was reaching the
end of its lifecycle, which VA officials figured to be seven years.


Patients and physicians will see the difference between 486 and AlphaServer performance
when they wait for test results to appear on the screen, Neidermeier said.


VA was in no hurry to upgrade because of year 2000 problems.


Neidermeier said inventories of the DHCP applications turned up no year 2000 problems
to fix.


M creates its own data structures. "Whoever wrote the date algorithms wrote them
with the year 2000 in mind, and we thank them," he said.


Besides VA, outside medical and banking institutions have a serious stake in the M
language, but other sectors have not recognized its value, Neidermeier said.


VA also has not rushed into client-server networking, relying still on VT terminals
connected to PC-based DHCP servers through Local Area Transport (LAT) terminal servers and
serial communications links.


Replacing 200,000 terminals will be a major expense, Neidermeier said, but it will
happen over time now that VA has awarded the $1.5 billion Procurement of Computer Hardware
and Software contract.


VA has more than 60,000 PCs, mostly running terminal emulation through LAT servers to
access the DHCP apps.


The switch to a client-server architecture won't come until VA completes the
Computerized Patient Record System, Neidermeier said. Several VA facilities are testing
CPRS.


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