Cloud choice no longer 'pie in the sky'

The question today is not 'why cloud?' but 'how cloud?'
By John Andrews
09:57 AM
Man pushing cloud computing button

Seems like the sky is the limit for cloud computing, whether it is to replace servers, manage mobile apps or handle system recovery. Cloud vendors are constantly coming up with new ways to utilize a platform that seemed like little more than vapor five years ago.

It was just that long ago that Alex Brown, CEO of Chicago-based 10th Magnitude, saw the cloud’s potential and became an evangelical about it. He concedes it was a tough sell at first.

“Initially people were skeptical and there were a lot of barriers,” he said. “It was hard getting traction with it – no one budged. But eventually small and mid-sized organizations realized they could reach their visions with the cloud because its affordability allowed them to finally compete with the big guys. Initially, they were our market.”

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[See also: GE Healthcare launches cloud service.]

The cloud has really taken off in the past year to 18 months as the model reached “an inflection point where the conversation wasn’t ‘why cloud,’ but ‘how cloud’ – how to start and how to use it,” Brown said. “Organizations used to throw $5 million to $10 million at server-based systems – it was insane. Now you can use iPad apps, the data has been set free, it is easy and fun to use and it is what practitioners need.”
Brown’s mission is to work with organizations that have big ideas on how to serve patients but have historically been inhibited by cost and complexity and “get it in place for them.” A typical project takes three to five months and by working with practitioners, draws data out of silos and puts it together in an iPad view, he said.

“They don’t buy anything – it runs in the cloud,” Brown said. “Client longitudinal data has been hard to get. We help build social media sites for them to foster physician-patient interaction. With networks under cost pressure, this technology can help them solve that. Because overhead is so low, the ROI value is huge.”

‘Here to stay’
As the cloud continues to evolve, it is now established technology and “is here to stay,” says Neal Evans, chief technology officer at Atlanta-based PointClear Solutions.

“There are a lot of mature products out there and the trust level has risen,” he said.” People see it as safe now, though if there is some data that needs extra protection, you should build a secure database that you own and host.”

PointClear has grown and changed over the past seven or eight years since it started, but what has stayed steady is “the belief in user experience and how to build software that fits with the provider workflow,” Evans said. Because the cloud concept enables data storage on “someone else’s infrastructure,” it has given PointClear’s clients a chance to invest in their business and focus on development, he said.

To be sure, Evans acknowledges that mobile apps have become the rage in healthcare as with everywhere else, calling it a “hair on fire vibe.” The apps for EHRs, EMRs and startups have been the crux of PointClear’s business, he said but “the push for mobile crescendoed in 2013 and people are struggling with how to have a mobile app.”

From a technological perspective, the struggle has become “mobile versus desktop,” Evan said, but “they don’t see the mobile app as a mini-version of a desktop app…the story we like to tell is that they should take advantage of the mobile platform to enable functions users can’t do on their desktops. You have a supercomputer in your pocket – with all the wireless devices, the technology is moving so that you have power in a mobile device equivalent to a modern desktop.”

[See also: Has the cloud found its moment?.]

Cloud-based protection
Though hardware may fail, the cloud’s virtual machinery continues indefinitely, which makes it an ideal backup system in case of an unexpected system shutdown, says Lynn LeBlanc, founder and CEO of Santa Clara, Calif.-based HotLink.

The four-year-old company has developed a cloud-based system that fits within heterogeneous and hybrid infrastructures with a “mix and match” platform that provides multiple versions of structure and adds “other flavors” to the mix, LeBlanc said. The HotLink solution can be added to existing infrastructure, she said, without having to rip anything out.

Because hardware failure is the most common reason for IT blackouts, they can be “a significant interruption” to operations, LeBlanc said. By using the Amazon cloud, HotLink can replicate the client’s host environment and restore it to the last saved point.

“We have patented technologies to make it possible for workloads to be portable but extends out the infrastructure,” she said. “We have a few products that target different use cases and focus on protecting the environment in the event of a failure in a low cost and simple way. In the data protection phase, we leveraged the technologies that we built in a way to make it possible for healthcare to protect their environment so they can be up and running at a minor cost and continue operations as if nothing failed.”

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