The Network Closet’s Role in Improving Patient Care
By Dan Draper (08/21/2013)

In the modern health care setting, network closets house increasingly more powerful and life-critical equipment — not respirators or gamma knives, but rather servers and network routers. The network closet is where critical IT devices reside, and hospitals and ambulatory facilities rely on these spaces to provide access to a growing number of vital applications including electronic medical records, wireless and telecommunications, and digital imaging.

The only way to fully grasp the criticality of the closet is to review the applications supported by the network and evaluate the impact to operations and patient outcomes if those applications go offline unexpectedly. According to a 2010 study by the Ponemon Institute sponsored by Emerson Network Power, health care organizations experience an average of three complete, unplanned data center outages every two years — more than any industry examined in the study. When IT systems are down due to power outages and other emergency events, the inability to process patient records, physician orders and billing are an inevitable outcome. Other potential consequences include equipment damage from surges, lost data and corrupted images, which can lead to staff rejecting the latest paperless IT systems. These IT systems are not just critical; they potentially can be life critical.

As the impact and costs of downtime continue to rise, focus should be put towards technologies that can increase the availability of critical IT systems. To ensure uptime and business continuity, following best practices for powering, cooling and monitoring these systems is essential and will lead to increased satisfaction from patients, clinicians and hospital administrators alike.

To achieve these goals, the IT infrastructure housed in network closets must be fortified. A closet running life-critical applications needs an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to provide instantaneous battery backup during a primary utility power outage — either until a generator can take over or utility power returns. Besides back-up power, the environmental conditions of the room housing the IT equipment must also be improved because IT equipment produces heat, which destroys electronics when improperly managed. In fact, every 10-degree increase in heat beyond 80 degrees Fahrenheit produces a 50 percent reduction in long-term reliability of the IT hardware. Most IT equipment has an upper operating temperature of 95 degrees to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and installing cooling options designed for people (the building’s AC system) is not always optimized for energy efficiency or up to the task.

Power Strategies for Fortifying Availability

In a typical facility, there may be dozens of closets scattered around the hospital, each containing a small UPS. In the aggregate, this distributed strategy is not sustainable with high battery management requirements, the need to add more UPS systems as loads grow and avoidable redundancies.

In a high-growth hospital setting, the better practice is a centralized approach involving the installation of one large UPS covering multiple network closets and capable of scaling to add future loads. With IT needs frequently expanding faster than existing capacity can handle, many small hospitals and ambulatory care facilities have opted for this integrated approach to address the complexities and expenses of designing dedicated rooms for technology. The total cost of ownership for the centralized versus distributed strategy can be 25 percent to 35 percent less. The reduction stems from myriad factors, including:

• Improved energy efficiency

• Streamlined service requirements

• Freed up rack and room space

• Lower UPS capital and operating expenditures

Protecting Assets & Optimizing Efficiency with Dedicated Cooling

Today’s power-hungry switches and mission-critical technology also generate more heat than older equipment. As a result, rack temperatures often exceed safe operating levels. Heat that is not removed from the room will be drawn back into the rack.

Equipment type and access room size largely will determine the precision cooling needs. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends an inlet temperature range of 64 degrees to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and a humidity level that should fall within 42 degrees to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. To achieve these, simple ventilation may suffice, or a dedicated cooling system may be necessary when power densities are high. Initial considerations should include ventilation of the access room, emergency power requirements, ducting of walls and ceilings to expel heat and year-round availability of building air conditioning. In ambulatory facility network closets, the latter issue is particularly important because the building air conditioning likely turns off at night and in the winter.

Anticipating Downtime Threats with Proactive Monitoring & Management

Finally, to keep IT infrastructure equipment operating at peak performance, a variety of remote monitoring and management software is available to detect environmental and equipment changes before adverse trends become emergencies. These events include shifts in heat and humidity, water leaks, declines in battery capacity and changes in runtime and output load percentage, as well as cooling equipment status. Achieving centralized visibility through remote management is especially useful in hospitals with hundreds of network closets, or when multiple remote, ambulatory offices comprise a core network. These systems alert IT personnel to potential issues with alarm notifications via email and text messaging.

Arriving at the appropriate solution for your health care facility means fully acknowledging the physical challenges imposed by the space and then overcoming them. The good news is there are flexible solutions available that integrate power, cooling and monitoring to meet current requirements and anticipate future needs as technology grows. This allows powerful and sensitive network equipment to operate safely, securely and reliably in the health care environment.

To make sure you’re keeping your systems up and running, consult with qualified suppliers and make sure the power and cooling discussion occurs in conjunction with IT planning. All too often, hospitals have to upgrade their power and cooling after the fact. The experience of not being able to access critical IT systems is an avoidable and unnecessary expense.

Dan Draper is the manager, strategic marketing and research for Liebert Products at Columbus, Ohio-based Emerson Network Power.

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