Healthcare organizations are rapidly introducing more connected devices into their health IT infrastructures, which calls for increased network visibility and management.
Entities currently deal with Wi-Fi connectivity supporting cloud applications, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and telehealth programs all running on the same wireless network. All this traffic potentially leads to slow connections due to overloaded bandwidth and bottlenecking, resulting in clinicians being unable to access mission-critical tools at the point of care.
Networks are expanding and supporting more devices and as they expand the harder they are to manage. Large healthcare organizations are faced with countless switches and routers that need to be maintained individually and are not dynamic enough to fluctuate network traffic based on an organization's needs.
Software-defined networking (SDN) can help prevent these problems.
Software-defined networking strips away the complexities of wireless hardware by consolidating management functions into a management server that dictates how data moves through the network. This allows IT administrators to retain more control over their networks and respond to demands on their networks more quickly.
What is Software-defined networking?
SDN uses virtualization to remove the intelligent management software from network hardware. By doing so, SDN creates a centralized, more intelligent, and easier managed network architecture.
The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) describes SDN as the “physical separation of the network control plane from the forwarding plane, and where a control plane controls several devices.”
SDN allows network administrators to manage the network through abstraction which gives apps and programs a simplified platform to operate on. ONF breaks down SDN architecture as:
Directly programmable: Network control is directly programmable because it is decoupled from forwarding functions.
Agile: Abstracting control from forwarding lets administrators dynamically adjust network-wide traffic flow to meet changing needs.
Centrally managed: Network intelligence is (logically) centralized in software-based SDN controllers that maintain a global view of the network, which appears to applications and policy engines as a single, logical switch.
Programmatically configured: SDN lets network managers configure, manage, secure, and optimize network resources very quickly via dynamic, automated SDN programs, which they can write themselves because the programs do not depend on proprietary software.
Open standards-based and vendor-neutral: When implemented through open standards, SDN simplifies network design and operation because instructions are provided by SDN controllers instead of multiple, vendor-specific devices and protocols.
SDN separates the network into several different planes, which allows IT to dynamically shape their network depending on what tasks they need to accomplish.The two main planes are the data plane and the control plane.
The data plane is made up of the hardware, such as switches and routers, that allow data to travel around the network.
The control plane is a set of management servers with centralized software management controls that communicates with the data plane and tells it how to move the data around the network.
Traditional network management solutions can dictate what data and packets have priority moving through the network, but SDN gives network administrators more control by providing a more dynamic set of functions. IT administrators can prioritize one set of data for a very short period of time, then several minutes later, prioritize another data set.
The added control is especially significant for healthcare because it prioritizes certain data at certain times depending on the situation. Data vital to patients in life threatening situations can be prioritized by the network over less urgent tasks such as back office applications.
SDNs are centrally managed and can be monitored from one location, which means that healthcare organizations with multiple sites or facilities don’t have to employ a team of network administrators at each campus.
Software-defined networking in the wide area network (SD-WAN) also piques interest in the healthcare sector as organizations seek a better way to access the public cloud.
Large healthcare organizations need to have complete visibility of their WAN, especially when it comes to mobile, IoT, and remotely accessed cloud environments.
WANs extend over a large geographical area and are used to exchange data among network users. They transmit data between local area networks (LANs) and connect LANs together to form a larger network.
SD-WAN centralizes the control function into a SDN controller, and the controller abstracts the user’s private network services from the underlying IP network. This enables the user to operate their private network services through a centralized policy. SD-WAN is flexible and can adapt more easily to changing network conditions and bandwidth demands during peak hours.
A report published last year by Webtorials found that access to the public cloud and virtual desktops was one of the WAN services in highest demand.
The Webtorials report indicated that the two biggest factors driving interest in SDN were better utilization of network resources and the ability to perform traffic engineering with an end-to-end view of the network. While utilization of network resources can be experienced by implementing SDN in the LAN or the WAN, end-to-end network visibility can only be achieved by implementing SDN in the WAN.
Software-defined networking uses in health IT
Healthcare wireless networks are complex to manage due to fact that wireless networks support various types of data. Organizations need to be able to prioritize signals based on their origin and purpose.
Healthcare is unique in that a split second of delayed communication can potentially have consequences for a patient. SDN helps organizations address this issue from an infrastructure standpoint.
SDNs provide IT departments with the ability to architect a custom management network, allowing them to prioritize different packets depending on a set of dynamic factors. IT administrators can prioritize traffic for specific mission-critical applications. This prevents low priority traffic, such as back office applications and personal applications, from gaining priority transmission through the network.
The network needs to be able to tell the difference between a clinician looking at a patient record during a routine checkup and a clinician looking at a patient record in the ICU or emergency room. The network needs to determine which action is more urgent.
“Network management has to be designed just like air traffic control,” said Extreme Networks Director of Healthcare Solutions Bob Zemke. “We have to look at the critical devices and how to prioritize them. We start with mission critical systems, life critical, telemetry, emergency communications, nurse call, then we look at maybe the business applications and systems, and everything else needed to support the clinicians' access and their devices.
SDNs are also useful to healthcare organizations managing various deployments of connected devices.
The continued adoption of IoT devices drives the need for an elastic network. According to the IEEE, SDNs help better manage and monitor physical devices which assist organizations in collecting, transmitting, and processing data. Organizations can use that data to build better IoT applications. The more efficiently the network can process and communicate IoT data, the more valuable it is to building applications.
Many medical IoT devices can store some patient information, but the device needs strong and prioritized connectivity when signals change and the device needs to alert a provider to a critical situation.
For example, if a heart monitor detects a life-threatening cardiac abnormality, that data should receive priority when being transmitted to a provider.
SDNs also support telehealth programs. Telehealth programs rely heavily on robust network connectivity to ensure clinicians and patients can exchange data accurately and quickly.
Clinicians broadcasting dense audio and video to a remote location need a flexible network to ensure that all packets are delivered and both parties are sending and receiving clear signals.
SDNs are also useful for data migration and transferring large files such as medical images. IT administrators can control how much data is traveling through the network to ensure that large migrations don’t interfere with daily workflow.
Healthcare organizations migrating data to the cloud need to meet certain network requirements. Many organizations are faced with upgrading their legacy network infrastructure before migrating data to the cloud. Upgraded networks for data migration can benefit from SDN’s increased control.
Current state of healthcare Software-defined networking deployments
While healthcare SDN deployments do exist, many organizations are hesitant to embrace the strategy due to their overall distrust of health IT infrastructure systems that function differently than traditional systems.
“Historically, hospitals and other healthcare institutions have been slow to adopt new technology, as maintaining the status quo was viewed as safer than risking disruption from new technologies,” said a recent report from ZK Research.
“IT departments in healthcare organizations are under tremendous pressure to become the enablers of a digital strategy. The network will play a key role in the shift to digital healthcare, as most of the enabling technologies are network centric. It’s time for the networks in healthcare institutions to evolve away from legacy architectures to a software-defined network,” the report added.
ZK Research suggests healthcare organizations recognize how important a flexible healthcare network is to the IT infrastructure and encourages IT staff to “think outside the box” when it comes to network architecture.
Healthcare organizations are exploring and adopting new infrastructure technology and need complete visibility and control over the network to ensure their solutions are working to capacity. Lack of network control leads to network bottlenecks that can prevent advanced infrastructure tools from performing to their highest capacity
Consolidation of design and natural scalability makes SDN more cost effective in the long run than traditional networks. SDNs can provide healthcare organizations with high-performing, low maintenance networks that can handle increased mobile traffic and scale to meet future demands. A software-defined network acts as a foundation for future network expansion.