How Providence Healthcare Redesigned its WAN for Digital Transformation

This syndicated post originally appeared at Zeus Kerravala, Author at eWEEK.

Providence, a healthcare organization with 51 hospitals and 829 clinics, selected an SD-WAN solution to improve performance and reliability.

Over the past decade, the role of the network has changed: What was once viewed as a non-differentiated tactical resource that got very little attention from business leaders is now considered a strategic asset.

An interesting data point from ZK Research is that 68% of business leaders consider the network important to business transformation. This is because organizations have become more distributed and dynamic, putting the network at the center of digital transformation strategies.

WAN Evolution is Necessary for Digital Transformation

The network, particularly the WAN, has not evolved in the better part of thirty years. In fact, the architecture most WANs are designed with is essentially the same as when I was an IT pro over two decades ago. This is what’s driving the high amounts of interest in software-defined WANs (SD-WANs). Despite the momentum, finding good case studies of real-world deployments has been challenging.

At the VMware Explore 2023, VMware hosted a breakout session with two technical implementation team members from Providence, a healthcare organization with 51 hospitals and 829 clinics in a wide variety of states around the country.

Providence Used SD-WAN to Redesign its Network

The case study senior principal network engineer Charlie Hagen and principal network engineer Conor McCutcheon were at the VMware event to discuss “Redesigning a Mission-Critical WAN to Drive Business.”

McCutcheon described his organization’s journey. “We provide life-saving care,” he said. “Underpinning all of that healthcare delivery is our network. A patient having a stroke or heart attack does not want to wait for the network to work for them to receive that care.”

McCutcheon said that the state of the Providence network was driven by organic growth and expansion over many years. This resulted in a fractured WAN topology with different regional networks that didn’t use a common standard.

In my experience, this is, by far, the norm versus the exception, leaving most companies with a messy, unmanageable WAN environment.

WAN Evolution Required a Rethink of the Network

McCutcheon said that Providence took these actions:

  • Consolidated to a single routing design enterprise-wide
  • Standardized on a single routing platform
  • Mediated overlapping IP space
  • Unified disparate routing domains
  • Set enterprise-wide standards

The consolidation fixed many issues, but selecting a single national carrier was challenging. With a national carrier, you have to take what they offer. That carrier might subcontract services to the local exchange, leading to finger-pointing when something goes wrong, which increases mean-time-to-recovery and can slow down new services or upgrades.

“Finally, we didn’t always see eye-to-eye with our national carriers on [technological] diversity,” McCutcheon said. “There were numerous occasions where incidents like fiber-seeking backhoes or carrier maintenance took both circuits down at a site even though we ordered diversity for that site.”

Charlie Hagan joined the discussion and said Providence decided to return to the table and reexamine the requirements. They wanted to develop the best WAN in healthcare and embrace change rather than depending on yesterday’s architecture and approaches.

SD-WAN Provides Superior Application Experience

“We wanted to deliver the best application experience because our caregivers experience our network through the applications that consume it,” Hagan said. “We wanted the WAN to enable the business to be agile in response to new opportunities and demands, including absorbing bandwidth-intensive needs of new medical equipment rather than being the bottleneck.”

Being able to shift the network because of unforeseen events (maybe a global pandemic?) was a critical requirement.

Hagan and McCutcheon decided to select an SD-WAN to enable the following advantages:

  • Dynamic remediation of impaired circuits through error correction and real-time detection and failover of impaired circuits.
  • Abstraction of the transport from the routing to enable integration of additional circuit types like internet connectivity into an enterprise connectivity model without having a separate solution.
  • Simplified management of the entire platform from a single pane of glass.
  • Standardization of the configuration and design.

“As Yogi Berra said, ‘When you come to a fork on the road, take it,’” McCutcheon said. “Our proposal was nothing less than a reinvention of our WAN.” So, with stakes so high, McCutcheon said the selection had to be correct. Providence asked a third party to build a test environment.

Selecting the SD-WAN Solution

“Several platform vendors participated and underwent an extensive test plan to ensure that they met our requirements and that we understood their behavior under load and failure conditions,” he said.

McCutcheon then shared some criteria they used to select their next SD-WAN solution, including dynamic path selection, zero-touch provisioning, orchestration and automation, link impairment detection and remediation, and interoperability with the legacy network.

“So as a result of this extensive testing, and because we’re here at VMware Explore, you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that VMware was our selected SD-WAN vendor,” McCutcheon said. “Since we’ve made that selection, we’ve finished the final design of our network integrating SD-WAN and begun to implement.”

As a result, McCutcheon said that the Providence WAN is rapidly becoming a strategic asset that enables the organization to be agile when new opportunities and demands arise. Now, Providence can move healthcare out of hospitals and into its network of ambulatory clinics.

No transition like this is flawless. In fact, Providence experienced an issue right off the bat. “During our very first cutover, we experienced an unplanned failover event during a morning executive briefing,” Hagan said. “This was a user, not a platform error. But after the event, we were pleased to be able to surprise the executives with the news that we’d had a failover. There was no perceived impact during their call. Since that time, we continue to see the same excellent responsiveness to circuit issues. The VMware SD-WAN platform provides detailed reportable telemetry on the performance of our network.”

Providence recently had another incident where they used telemetry within the SD-WAN to isolate an issue. “Because our internet upstream at our data center was the endpoint for multiple tunnels for multiple locations, we were able to identify that only some of those tunnels were impacted by a carrier issue unidirectionally,” McCutcheon said. “In short, we were able to feed that to our upstream provider to identify that there was a peering issue upstream of them. It was all available to us within the orchestrator, and it was enlightening.”

Maybe more important, Providence can now use telemetry to hold their carriers accountable and to identify the graded circuit performance despite the lack of impact on caregivers. We throw around terms like mission-critical all the time, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t really accurate most of the time.

But, at healthcare organizations like Providence, those words ring true. They are, quite literally, saving lives. It’s nice to see the thinking that Providence put into their move to an SD-WAN. The willingness to rethink WAN operations and break the status quo is something all companies should consider.

Author: Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.