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Nuffield Health hits peak performance after switching to SDN

The non-profit healthcare and fitness organisation has improved both its network and wider IT performance after switching over to SDN technology

Non-profit healthcare and fitness organisation Nuffield Health has switched out its legacy multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network in favour of a Silver Peak software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) as the basis for a wide-ranging IT upgrade.

Probably one of the UK’s best-known private health companies, Nuffield started in the late 1950s as a charitable trust, and today, as a trading charity, it ploughs all its profit back into service delivery at its network of 31 hospitals, 111 gyms and wellbeing centres, and 121 corporate fitness centres. Last year, it carried out over a million clinical interventions, 200,000 hospital procedures and 750,000 physiotherapist appointments.

Around mid-2015, Nuffield embarked on a major cloud-centric refresh of its IT, with the intention of running more applications and processes in Microsoft Azure.

“We have a number of bespoke, specialist applications that are increasingly moving to software as a service (SaaS) delivery models. We were also looking to make more use of Azure and move away from datacentres,” says Nuffield IT operations director Dan Morgan.

Nuffield currently runs two datacentres of its own and maintains a link into a supplier’s datacentre to run a particular hosted service, but between now and 2020, it plans to fall back to a single owned datacentre (while maintaining access to its supplier’s) as it hands off more of its workloads into Microsoft’s cloud.

However, to be able to adopt a cloud-first model, it first needed to rip out all the old plumbing. An elderly MPLS network with only one link into each Nuffield site was rapidly coming to the end of its useful life (and service contract) and moreover, an audit of the organisation’s WAN usage at the start of 2016 found that 60% of its traffic was already going straight to the internet rather than through its datacentres anyway.

“We needed to change that because there’s no point in funnelling traffic through the MPLS, through the datacentre, to the internet – it makes more sense to go to the internet first,” says Morgan.

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As a non-profit, an added imperative for the organisation was the need to consider a cheaper option. “Any money I spend on IT is money we’re not spending on our health activities,” he says. “My thinking was by going to SD-WAN we could use cheaper connectivity, have dual 100Mbps links, for example, with SD-WAN running over them, rather than one 30Mbps link.”

As such, Nuffield Health turned to longstanding tech partner Ampito to design an SD-WAN edge architecture to intelligently and securely route WAN traffic over the internet based on application-driven policies, without compromising on performance.

Having considered other suppliers, Nuffield Health selected Silver Peak’s SD-WAN solution, Unity EdgeConnect, based on performance and cost, as well as its ability to support seamless service chaining. It also picked up zScaler and Palo Alto Networks firewalls for intelligent internet breakout, improving SaaS application performance, while keeping its branches secure.

The deployment process took place against a fairly tight deadline – in part because Nuffield had to have a new service commissioned before its previous contract expired. For a time, said Morgan, this meant a number of smaller sites had to run internet links on 4G LTE dongles while they waited for a fibre internet service to be delivered.

However, using Silver Peak’s Unity Orchestrator, which enables zero-touch provisioning and is included with EdgeConnect, Morgan was able to vastly simplify the process of deploying the successor SD-WAN, covering 189 sites in four months, at an average of 15 sites per weak, peaking at 27, although he noted the process could have been even faster if he hadn’t been installing new internet links at the same time.

“Deployment of Silver Peak is so simple – you bring the box up with an internet connection and it pulls the configuration down, so it’s eminently feasible to have non-technical staff migrating sites,” he says.

A work in progress

Following the deployment, frontline Nuffield staff now have much faster and more reliable access to the core services they need in their day jobs, said Morgan, but much work remains to be done on other elements of the network, including upgrades to local area networks (LANs) and Wi-Fi services at Nuffield’s various sites.

But really, said Morgan, the usefulness of SD-WAN to the organisation goes far beyond just improving the speed with which people can get online, it speaks to the network’s increasing importance as an enabler for all IT projects.

“SDN is the first phase of our transformation piece, and it was fortuitous because we had both the opportunity and the need to change – it was a rare alignment of the commercial, strategic and tactical sides.

“We’re a long way past the days when IT was back office, it’s at the heart of how we deliver healthcare, and to be able to deliver those services we need a reliable network and more bandwidth, and by using SD-WAN we have six times the bandwidth and resilient, reliable links,” he says.

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