Air Force team tests network of blade PCs

Staff Sgt. William Zachary, left, and Capt. Timothy Ohrenberger slide a ClearCube blade into its rack, which can hold up to eight blades, at the 75th Medical Group clinic at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.<>

An Air Force medical clinic in Utah is testing more than just blood pressure and eyesight.

With stopwatch precision, the 75th Medical Group at Hill Air Force Base is trying out a centralized system of rackmount blade PCs to see if it will save time and money compared with standard desktop clients.

If the test shows the clinic can reduce total costs, Air Force Capt. Timothy Ohrenberger, the clinic's CIO, said he wants to see a choice of distributed or rackmount PCs offered to all Air Force medical centers as they refresh their technology.

In May, Ohrenberger and his staff installed 44 blade computers manufactured by ClearCube Technology Inc. of Austin, Texas, in an annex to the 75th Medical Group's main building.

ClearCube Technology makes rackmount CPUs that link to desktop components via 10/100-Mbps Ethernet and a C/Port, a small box placed near users' desks.

The ClearCube cages, 5.25-inch-high racks that can hold up to eight blades each, remain in a data center that can be up to 200 meters from the users.

The annex where Ohrenberger's team is testing the ClearCube system houses flight medicine, physical examination, pediatrics and optometry clinics for the Air Force Materiel Command.

The clinics use the Composite Health Care System for patient records, optometry software for ordering prescription eyeglasses, and standard e-mail and desktop applications.

The 44 ClearCube blade clients, temporarily replacing 42 desktop PCs with two blades reserved as spares, are only a fraction of about 400 standard PCs on the clinic's network, Ohrenberger said.

After being briefed early this year by ClearCube officials and doing a cost study, Ohrenberger wrote a proposal to the Air Force Medical Support Agency to fund a test.

The medical group's PCs are on a three-year lifecycle, meaning one-third are replaced every year.

When the clinic got a new shipment of desktop PCs in January, its IT staff started to document the time required for support.

Now they collect the same data points for the ClearCube blade clients, 'from receiving them at the dock to imaging them to putting them on the desks to supporting them when they break,' Ohrenberger said. 'We're walking around with stopwatches.'

By mid-July the medical group should have enough data points to reach a conclusion about savings.

'It is all a support issue,' Ohrenberger said.

For example, if the clinic's help desk gets a phone call about a PC that broke down, someone must physically move that employee's computer off the desk, get another one ready and hook it up.

Quick transfer

In the ClearCube environment, the administrator can immediately transfer the worker to a spare blade PC with 'zero time away from the desk for my technician,' Ohrenberger said. The staff can then repair the problem client when they have the time.

Users don't always back up their work, Ohrenberger said. In the ClearCube environment, however, an administrator can take a snapshot of all the PCs at one time.

Since the ClearCube system made its debut, the company has added management functions, ClearCube chief executive officer Mike Frost said. The software lets administrators manage the blade PCs remotely.

The ClearCube blades are somewhat more expensive than desktop PCs with the newest 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 processors. Ohrenberger's proposal estimated a total cost of $101,715 for the 44-seat pilot.

Over the total lifecycle, however, Ohrenberger said he believes the blades will shave administrative costs.

'If I can reduce end-user downtime, then I'm reducing the cost of health care or making it more efficient,' he said.

The design also improves physical and information security because the CPUs are racked in a locked communications closet.

Although the Defense Department is not required to comply with the strict privacy regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 until next April, 'that's not far away,' Ohrenberger said.

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