The value of services is very evident to Passport Health Communications Inc., a company that provides hospital and health care clients with unique software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions. So when Passport Health began to face IT infrastructure challenges—power consumption, space restrictions and data center resources—it turned to services experts to help design and implement the necessary technology upgrades.

The company’s flagship SaaS product, eCare NEXT Patient Access Suite, is a revenue-cycle management system used by one in three U.S. hospitals and more than 5,000 other health care facilities in 50 states. It’s a complete set of solutions and services that verify patient information, ensure compliance, and manage payment for every patient.

With software customization a distinct part of its business, it’s vital that Passport Health respond to client demands quickly. Fast response times are critical to Passport Health’s competitive position in its market and its clients’ abilities to secure payment for services.

IT teams partner up
Business was growing at a steady pace, and data center infrastructure concerns—such as server sprawl, cooling, heating and power—were on an upward trajectory. Passport was pressured to rethink its data center strategy. Partnering with Dell™ Services, Passport Health’s IT team of five professionals brainstormed a data center strategy and design to standardize, simplify and automate operations while minimizing costs.

According to David Stewart, manager of network and systems at the Franklin, Tenn.-based company, the combined team decided to consolidate Passport Health’s IT infrastructure using VMware, Dell blade servers, Dell EqualLogic™ virtualized iSCSI storage area network (SAN) and Brocade switches. With the help of Dell, Passport Health began the project with its test and development environment, using early versions of VMware running on Dell PowerEdge™ 1955 blade servers running Microsoft® Windows® software. Today, Passport Health has consolidated more than 40 production-class virtualized machines (VMs) on a single blade server.

Server infrastructure provides 70% virtualization
Currently, 70% of Passport Health’s systems are virtualized, including its entire Web farm, EDI transaction processing and all its test and development. That wasn’t the case in the past when the company had a mix of about 50 Dell and HP physical servers running the Windows® 2000 and 2003 operating system and a big Fibre Channel SAN. “Just provisioning and configuring new servers to develop a customized module could take a couple of weeks,” says Steve Witucke, senior network engineer at Passport Health.

Steve Witucke of Passport Health SystemsOlder, power-hungry and underutilized hardware was removed from the data center, freeing up valuable rack space. This translated into an ability to grow significantly from 50 physical servers, to more than 600 physical and virtual servers in the same data center footprint.

The virtual environment includes a Dell PowerEdge M1000e blade enclosure and Dell PowerEdge M710 blade servers running the VMware® vSphere™ 4.1 data center operating systems for its x86 IT infrastructure. The company has over 500 VMs across its corporate data center and a disaster recovery site on 16 physical hosts.

iSCSI SAN complements servers
Passport’s data center modernization project also implemented Dell storage systems to integrate seamlessly with the server architecture, providing better performance, reduced risk of downtime and far less management complexity. A new iSCSI SAN is used for back-end storage for all VMs, replication for disaster recovery, and growth to meet business demands.

Storage infrastructure includes the Dell EqualLogic PS 6000XVS iSCSI SAN and more recently, the Dell EqualLogic PS6010XVS iSCSI SAN, reflecting Passport Health’s new direction from 1GbE to faster 10GbE throughput. The PS6010XVS iSCSI SAN is configured with 12 10GbE arrays.

The enterprise-class Dell EqualLogic iSCSI SAN outperforms the legacy 2GB Fibre Channel infrastructure and is highly scalable. “ Rather than relying on a central Fibre Channel SAN to provide disk resources to multiple consumers, the EqualLogic modular building blocks enable us to deploy groups of disks dedicated to individual consumers and distribute the risk of a failed module across multiple pieces of hardware,” says Witucke.

During 2011, Passport Health increased the amount of disk space allocated to production-class data bases by 100%, from roughly 50TB to more than 100TB.

Integrated solution builds stellar services
“As we find more ways to add value to our clients, we need more data and more ways to access it,” says Witucke.

The company also invested in Brocade FastIron SX 800 switches that offer scalable, secure, low-latency and fault-tolerant IP services infrastructure for 1 and 10GbE enterprise deployments.

With a virtualized data center, Passport Health works smarter, saves money and poises itself for growth. The company keeps breaking its own record for number of health care EDI transactions processed, realizing an increase of 20% this year compared to last year.

“Servers are turned up in minutes, we can begin development work immediately and bring services to our clients fast,” says Witucke.

--Lynn Haber is a freelance journalist reporting on business and technology from the metropolitan Boston area.