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What’s the Difference Between Cloud, Virtualization in Healthcare?

Cloud and virtualization technology are closely related and share many functionalities, but healthcare organizations seeking new infrastructure solutions, may benefit from one or the other.

By Elizabeth O'Dowd

- While the terms are often used interchangeably, cloud and virtualization are not the same technology. It’s important for healthcare organizations who are looking to virtualize or move parts of their health IT infrastructure to the cloud to understand what each technology offers and how they are different from one another.

Cloud vs virtualization in healthcare

Virtualization, which is a relatively new addition to healthcare IT, is categorized as a component of cloud computing.

Similar to the concept that all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, all virtualization solutions are cloud-based, but not all cloud solutions are virtualization.

Both technologies separate hardware from software functions, allowing hardware to be used more effectively. How each technology achieves this is what sets them apart.

Cloud’s main function is separating an application from the hardware, or endpoint. For example, software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications are accessed via a web browser and the accessed data is stored on a remote server. The endpoint does not store the data accessed by the SaaS application.  

Virtualization frees up endpoint devices even further. In standard cloud computing, the endpoint has an operating system (OS) installed on it used to access applications and data. Virtualization separates the OS from the device hardware by adding another layer called a hypervisor.

A hypervisor is a layer in between the server and the virtualized OSes. The OSes are installed on the hypervisor instead of the server and are referred to as “instances”. Instances can be moved from server to server as needed because they are not attached to the hardware.

Cloud and virtualization both take strain off of an organization’s hardware, are scalable, and can cut IT infrastructure costs, but choosing the correct solution for each component of an organization’s IT infrastructure depends on functionality, budget, and staff.

Healthcare organizations seeking new solutions have many options, but IT decision-makers need to examine their current infrastructure and identify what cloud or virtualization can do that the current infrastructure cannot.

Healthcare organizations looking to  cut overall IT costs may benefit from virtualization. Virtualization can eliminate the need for much of an infrastructure’s hardware. Organizations do not have to fully virtualize their IT environment to gain cost and efficiency benefits from virtualization.

Virtualizing servers or implementing software-defined solutions such as software-defined networking, software-defined data centers and, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) are several virtualization options organizations can implement to support parts of their networks.

However, while virtualization can save healthcare organizations money when it comes to operating costs, initial implementation can be expensive.

In a recent Red Hat survey, respondents said cost and management were the two biggest challenges for virtual deployments. Survey analysts found that organizations could benefit financially in the long run, but the upfront cost of virtualization technology along with licensing and consulting fees can be expensive.

Virtualization solutions are relatively new to the healthcare industry. Several of the niche virtualization technologies such as virtual mobile infrastructure (VMI) are looking at less than 50 wide scale healthcare deployments total. The low number isn’t because the technology is not suited for healthcare, but because other aspects of health IT infrastructure, such as some EHR solutions, are not suited for the virtual mobile environment.

Because cloud has been implemented widely in healthcare for several years, it is likely to be more compatible with other healthcare technologies. Organizations may be interested in virtualization, but may not have the means or the need for it in their infrastructure yet.

While virtualization is growing along with cloud, understanding when and why to implement a virtualization solution or a cloud solution is a critical step to building a scalable, future-proof IT infrastructure.

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