Cisco and NetApp's Flexpod enables scalability for NHS trusts' data anlaytics platform

A London NHS organisation has set up a private cloud using Cisco and NetApp Flexpod architecture to provide its health care analytics platform to clinicians as the number of patients under its care grew three-fold.


A London NHS organisation set up a private cloud using Cisco and NetApp Flexpod architecture to deliver its health care analytics platform to clinicians, as the number of patients under its care increased three-fold.

North and East London Commissioning Support Unit (NELCSU) faced a number of significant changes to its business as it merged with another trust in April 2012, before being separated into a support group – the NELCSU itself - and a number of clinical commissioning groups in the region which received its IT services.

The changes meant that NELCSU had to provide IT support for 13 clinical commissioning groups which previously came under the remit of the trust in areas such as Newham, Waltham Forest, City and Hackney, while the number of patients increased from just over a million to 3.3 million.  However, with no extra IT staff brought onboard as NELCSU’s services expanded, the organisation needed more value from its data centre infrastructure.

“We used to be looking after little over a million patients within our catchment area,”said Gregory Peacock, ICT Manager at NELCSU. “Now we have gone up to around three million people that we cover in terms of commissioning support, and with the same size team which covered the smaller group we were able to expand and cover a much larger area.”

The NELCSU provides a number of software services from its private cloud infrastructure hosted in an Interxion co-location facility in Liverpool Street.  This includes file and email systems, including Microsoft Exchange, while finance and HR systems are provided through NHS shared services.

The most important service that NELCSU provides in terms of its IT is its intelligence and informatics system, delivered to clinicians through an online dashboard.  The SQL data warehouse platform, developed in-house, is used by the clinician groups to gain insights into data in order to inform a wide range of decisions, from managing budgets to evaluating the business impact of commissioning decisions.  This is where the NELSCU has seen the most significant increase in demands from clinician groups, Peacock said, as the number of patients has increased.

In order to deliver the extra compute and storage resources need to deliver the services to its clinician group customers, which has also grown to include other trusts and local authorities throughout the UK, NELCSU decided to implement Cisco and NetApp’s converged infrastructure offering, Flexpod.

Although the existing legacy hardware from Fujitsu and NetApp had another few years of usability according to Peacock, the predominantly physical server environment did not give the flexibility required to scale to meet the needs of NELCSU when organisational changes took hold. 

“We knew the infrastructure needed changing and it wasn’t in a state that was very easy to upgrade piecemeal,” he said.

Peacock added that a number of other vendors were considered to provide a converged infrastructure system, but Cisco and NetApp were decided on due to the virtualisation capabilities of Cisco’s UCS servers, and an existing relationship with the storage vendor.    

"We researched the market in terms of looking at the different vendors and technologies and decided that the Cisco server infrastructure and the Flexpod was appropriate for our needs, and gave us the agility of building and expanding in a very simple and modular manner."

“The UCS product does for hardware what VMs do for servers, so it effectively makes a hardware hypervisor so VM hosts are built on a virtual hardware layer," Peacock said.  "Most of the others don’t tend to have that technology, they have something similar, but at the time they were the only vendors that were able to do that.”

NELCSU decided to replace its Fujitsu server chassis with two Cisco UCS blade chassis, housing four B200 M2 dual six core processors (3.466 GHz) with 50GB memory, and six B250 M2 dual six core processors (3.466 GHz) with 200GB memory.  The pre-configured system include Nexus switches and 24 TB NetApp storage, and virtualised using a VMware hypervisor.

Following the integration of the Flexpod by Computacenter in March 2012, Preacock said the modularity of the converged infrastructure system has allowed NELCSU to expand to meet the growing demands on its IT without external assistance.

This has meant that NELCSU has since doubled its used storage, going from 9TB to 20TB, and is in the process of provisioning another 20TB as demands on IT support continue to grow.

“Since we have done this we have also expanded the infrastructure to another chassis and some more NetApp storage,” Peacock said. “That process has been a lot easier to do ourselves and implement, and it wasn’t as complicated as the old environment to do that.” 

“We are a lot more confident to add on to this environment than we did normally.”

Furthermore the introduction of the Flexpod, NELSCU has begun the implementation of a virtual desktop infrastructure pilot, Peacock said, though most of the current capacity has been diverted to the demand for its analytics service.   

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