CDC girding to open its cloud to public health

By Tom Sullivan
12:12 PM
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Tom Savel, MD, is that rare breed of physician who contends his real goal in life is to be a technologist.

Savel, like any IT guy worth his weight in geek, thinks big – which is exactly how what started as a software-testing sandbox five years ago is now on the cusp of being a quiver of cloud computing capabilities offered to health entities.

Within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Savel is the director of the Informatics Research and Development Activity (IRDA), under the Public Health Surveillance and Informatics Program Office.

The CDC is about to open IRDA's cloud to federal, state, and local health departments.

Modest roots
Back in 2007, a tiny little entity came together around a handful of machines, serving the CDC internally.

Specifically, the lab focused on testing whether applications worked with Windows Server 2008 or SQL Server 2008, according to Dale LaValley, IRDA lead engineer (pictured at right).

The project, in fact, was started with high-powered laptops and that was the lab. Users could not access it remotely. Rather, they had to come in and were assigned a workstation. “It was applications infrastructure testing,” LaValley said, “and it grew up around that.”

Upgrading to VMware Workstation 7 allowed IRDA to test more applications internally and, later, adding VMware ESX equipped the lab for external testing. And IRDA also uses Lab Manager to give workers their own sandbox, LaValley explained.

Expanded to include additional systems and more robust capabilities, CDC officially knighted it the Informatics R&D unit in 2010. One year after that, according to Savel, the lab had enough capacity to serve as an agency-wide resource.

An updated name, it's now known as the Informatics Research and Development Activity, was only fitting for the quickly growing team.

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“We’ve had over 100 engagements working with our lab and there’s a wide variety of needs they have that our cloud has been able to meet. Some of that is testing software,” Savel explained. “Another is creating a Web portal and they’re in this phase that they’ve developed it but they don’t want to go into production. They want it somewhere they can get user feedback and our lab provides that interim step out of development.”

When CDC’s Laboratory Science, Policy and Practice Program office was developing a prototype mobile application to aid clinicians in selecting follow-up tests, rather than turning to Amazon or the traditional tech vendors, the office opted for IRDA and its cloud offerings. IRDA, in turn, helped the office create PTT Advisor, and ultimately submitted the application to iTunes.

Savel and his staff have also worked with CDC’s Situational Awareness team to investigate new tools, an engagement that involved prototypes of the functional and non-functional variety. And the lab assisted the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in evaluating and testing of a new statistical information system such that, Savel explained, NCHS was able to keep costs low and the timeframe shorter.

Why did the other CDC units really need a cloud host for those projects?

“In a federal agency there are a lot of hoops you have to go through,” Savel said. “There are lots of processes.”

The IRDA cloud is not on the network of CDC proper, but on a separate virtual LAN that is fully approved with certain certification and accreditation federal government agencies require – a fact that enables them to circumvent processes that might take weeks, if not months.

“With IRDA, as long as they’re not using live patient data and they’re not hitting production systems they have the flexibility of doing things much more quickly,” Savel explained.

A public offering
A mobile app such as PTT Advisor might seem simple enough, but Savel and LaValley are working toward something much bigger: Opening up the IRDA cloud to state and local public health agencies.

The cloud infrastructure, in fact, is one of three services IRDA offers. The second is consultation and evaluation expertise the team draws upon to offer guidance and understanding of new technologies. If a customer is considering mobile products, for instance, IRDA can help them determine whether Android or iOS is the better fit. Lastly are the lab’s prototype capabilities, which include paper prototypes, as well as non-functional and functional prototyping to envision, then ultimately demonstrate technologies and the impact they might have on customers.

Another early user of the IRDA cloud, the CDC’s Arctic Investigations Program, accessed the resources across the Internet to test new technologies that might improve their own infrastructure. In the process, the Arctic Investigations Program also helped IRDA identity suboptimal remote performance areas and iron those out, Savel said.

[Related: With eye on public health, Delaware, Michigan roll out clouds]

The CDC estimated that using IRDA, particularly since it is currently free of charge, saves each engagement an approximate average of $15,500 but LaValley and Savel agreed that is probably a conservative estimate, depending on each project’s particular needs, namely workstation, virtual machines, server capacity or database capabilities.

Future funding
Perhaps Savel’s biggest challenge today is a small team, five to seven people, and a budget to match.

“It looks like soon we’ll start to have a lot more engagement at the state and local level,” Savel said. While he would not reveal any specific states or departments that have signed on to use IRDA’s cloud, he explained that “though in its early phases, our lab has been working with many CDC programs in collaboration with state and local health departments.”

Therein the great opportunity lies. Savel intends to continue growing by doing what they can with the resources at their disposal – and trekking forward under the expectation that as IRDA approaches maximum capacity CDC will agree to requests for more resources based on IRDA's proven value both inside and outside the agency.

“We feel extremely lucky to have this as a service to provide, to help programs that might not even know what cloud is to say ‘wow, I had no idea we could do that,’” Savel revealed. “And to help them, to become a bit of a change agent.”

Perhaps there’s still a dash of doctor left in Savel the IT guy, after all.