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Fast Provisioning with VMware vCloud Suite

For one health care organization, fast provisioning of development environments translates to a serious competitive advantage.

Few industries have seen more technological evolution over the past decade than health care. As IT director for health care billing clearinghouse Navicure Inc., Donald Wilkins has seenĀ­ -- and implemented -- many of the changes first-hand.

Navicure helps more than 50,000 health care providers manage insurance claims and patient payments. Its Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions automate account receivables processes, patient eligibility verification, rejected and denied claims management and appeal, electronic remittance and posting, claims and remittance reporting and analysis, and patient statement and payment processing.

Key to Navicure's success has been its ability to be first to market with products and services that help its customers conform to ever-evolving health care regulations. Although changing regulations introduce a certain amount of chaos into Wilkins' work life, the IT director welcomes them. "Although regulation changes can be laborious for us, they really are a great opportunity for us to show our customers what we can do," he says.

For example, a few years back, a HIPAA-mandated transactional set of changes helped Navicure win new customers. "We started ahead of time; we handled the transition very well; and we did it early," says Wilkins. "When the deadline hit, a lot of our competitors disrupted the revenue flow for their customers by two to three weeks."

From Days to 15 Minutes
To put him even further ahead of his competitors, Wilkins is always looking for ways to speed the software development process. Last year, Wilkins and his team moved to the Agile development process, an iterative process designed around chunks of development time called Sprints. The team needed tools that would keep up with this fast-paced development methodology.

Enter VMware vCloud Suite
Because the production environment contained a mix of physical and virtual elements, it had been a challenge to build a development environment. Even using imaging techniques, the process took two or three days' worth of configuration to set up, install the necessary applications, and tweak the system to perform the way it needed to perform. IT was involved at some stages of the process, as well as the developers. "If developers are spending the first days of their Sprint doing this, they're wasting time they could be using to write code," explains Wilkins. "I need them to start developing on day one of the Sprint cycle."

Wilkins' plan was to create a fast provisioning process that would let developers press a button, then have their development environment sitting in from of them. Using vCloud Director, Automation Center, and Orchestrator, he set up a self-service catalog to deploy development and test environments on-demand, removing IT as a bottleneck and freeing up developers' time.

"We can spin up a vApp that consists of eight virtual machines. That vApp is structured in a network topology that's very similar to production. You've got a Web tier, application tier, database tier and other supporting systems, in a fenced infrastructure," describes Wilkins. "All these systems are built from a template process where we spin up a vanilla box. After that, if the system needs to be customized -- meaning a piece of software installed or a piece of code deployed -- those scripts immediately run. The whole process takes 15 minutes."

vCloud Director is the foundation of the system, provisioning software-defined datacenter services as virtual datacenters that provide virtualized compute, networking, storage and security. vCloud Automation Center provides the portal through which the developer requests the environment. vCenter Orchestrator builds the scripts to execute on the application.

In addition to deploying the self-service catalog, Navicure recently implemented the vCloud Suite chargeback capabilities to analyze the resources involved in the development process, including VM and R&D costs. It also uses the suite's capacity-planning capabilities to understand how the company uses compute, memory and storage resources. This helps accurately forecast IT resource needs, and optimize VMs for the most efficient use of resources.

"We wanted to provide a clear picture -- more than a gut feeling -- of how we're using our infrastructure," says Wilkins.

Lessons Learned
For companies exploring vCloud as an option, Wilkins has two bits of advice. The first is to invest in some development training for your administrator. "vCloud Automation Center is a great tool, but it comes with a learning curve. The admin writing the scripts and the automation components to deploy your unique environment needs some development background," says Wilkins. "Without it, they're going to struggle for a little while."

Wilkins also recommends a "virtualization-first" policy. "If you haven't made the commitment to virtualization, you need to. If you're just dipping your toe into the virtualization waters, you aren't going to get the full benefit."

Although some legacy systems can't be virtualized, many can. "It can be painful, but you just gotta do it," says Wilkins. "It's always a `virtualization-first' policy here. Unless there's some software licensing policy that doesn't let you virtualize, like Oracle, you should really embrace it."

Competitive Confidence
Wilkins is happy with the results of his vCloud Suite implementation. "Development is definitely much more productive because we're not having to spend time on the infrastructure."

He does reveal that new VMware products will help Navicure customers smoothly handle the Affordable Care Act, which mandates statutory changes to the transaction set -- known as ICD-9 and ICD-10 code changes. Congress recently delayed the changes until 2015. "Less than 20 percent of the marketplace was ready," explains Wilkins. "So, we are in a holding pattern until the rest of the industry is ready, specifically the insurance payers we communicate with."

"But, yes, we're ready," says Wilkins with confidence. In the meantime, Wilkins is sure to be turning his attention to developing products and services that pull Navicure even further ahead of the pack.

About the Author

Christa Ayer is a freelance technology writer based in Seattle, Wash.

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