Major cloud providers are able to achieve impressive uptime by distributing the load across a large number of commodity servers. There’s no single master server that can fail and bring down the entire infrastructure. It’s not surprising then that so many healthcare networks are already relying on major cloud providers to run electronic medical records (EMR) and imaging applications and store patient data. So doesn’t it make sense to adopt the same approach for the network?

Healthcare networks face a unique challenge that many other networks don’t: how do you grow your network quickly and reliably while remaining compliant? As patient data grows, this tension between growth and compliance is increasing. Healthcare networks are feeling the pressure to move data faster, and this often requires adding more connections and switches, which entails routing and other configuration changes. These continual and rapid changes come at the cost of long, sometimes unplanned, outages. Planned outages are to be expected, but unexpected outages are a nightmare. Consequently, many healthcare networks have understandably opted for slower network growth to maintain a stable, reliable network.

But thanks to the advent of web-scale networking, the tension between growth and compliance is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The cloud approach is what inspired web-scale networks, and it’s what healthcare networks need. This post will explain how web-scale networking lets you grow your network quickly and reliably, while staying compliant.

Network configuration changes are unavoidable. Even planned downtime is stressful and costly, so anything to make the change process quicker and less prone to error is going to be a big win. Automation is key to making these changes quickly while maintaining stability. With automation, your network configuration is decoupled from the underlying hardware. This allows you to take your existing network and simulate an exact copy of it using virtual switches. Whenever you need to make a change to your production network, start by making it on your simulated virtual network. You can fully validate your changes and make sure everything works as expected. After you’re satisfied with the results, you can use automation to quickly push out those already-tested changes to your production network.

Of course, even with proper testing, things don’t always go as planned. Compliance — and common sense — dictate that you need a backout plan. Automation can track your network configuration at every turn, keeping a full backup of every switch configuration. In the event you have to roll back, you can literally push a button, and everything will return to the way it was.

Switching to a web-scale network can shorten the change management window tremendously. In a traditional network, you log into individual switches, make changes one by one, and then validate those changes at each step. In a web-scale network, you program the particular changes into your automation platform and test those changes in your simulated network — outside the maintenance window. Then when it’s time to push the change to production, you just push a button and the changes propagate across the network, usually in seconds or minutes. After that, you can immediately begin validating the changes.

A web-scale network can also make compliance easier. For example, you may need to create a segmented virtual network to carry sensitive data. In a traditional network, this may require researching how to configure VXLANs — a process that differs widely with different hardware vendors. This is a complex configuration that can take hours of careful typing and testing, depending on the size of the network. But with a web-scale network, you don’t have to concern yourself with hardware-specific VXLAN intricacies. Everything is done in software. Best of all, you can fully test and validate your changes in your simulated network before committing to production.

Hardware failures happen. This is unavoidable, but in a healthcare network it can be catastrophic. In a traditional network with core, distribution and access layers, a failure of one switch can bring down an entire wing. At the very least, it can result in degradation of network performance.

Web-scale networking takes a different approach. Using a leaf-and-spine topology, web-scale networks provide redundancy at every switch. Rather than being dependent upon a handful of massive core switches, you spread the load across many smaller spine switches. This reduces the size of a failure domain. There is no single point of failure. This web-scale approach to hardware not only makes the network more stable, but it also makes adding capacity and doing hardware refreshes easier.

The advantages of this in the healthcare industry are obvious and massive. If you’re not already looking at making your healthcare network web-scale, isn’t it time to start?

If you want a real-life example of how web-scale networking can benefit healthcare networks, check out this video, where Athena Health discusses the web-scale solution they created with Cumulus Networks. By leveraging Cumulus Linux, Athena Health was able to build an efficient web-scale data center that provided them with reduced time to operations and the reliability their clients, and patients, depend on.