AthenaHealth is running a new disaggregated data center architecture alongside its old legacy architecture at its three data centers across the United States. And it has found ways to incentivize the company’s IT employees to transition to the new model.
Athena needed to grow the capacity of its three U.S. data centers, located on the west coast, east coast, and mid-continent. “We took this opportunity to explore solutions in the market to see what the modern trends are,” said Andrey Khomyakov, Athena Health’s network architect.
The company decided to move away from proprietary hardware and software to a disaggregated, open model. It’s using open Dell EMC switches and the Cumulus Linux operating system.
But as it transitions to the newer model, it’s not forcing the nearly 500 members of its IT and development staff to embrace the new. Instead, it’s incentivizing them.
“We are running the old in parallel with the new,” said Khomyakov. “It is a Herculean task to refactor the old. Too many people need to participate with too many dependencies. It was much easier to build a new network off to the side and use it as an incentive for teams. The old legacy will effectively die on the vine as systems get deployed.”
But people naturally resist change, so how are they motivated to use the newer technology?
Khomyakov said when someone requests additional capacity, they’re told they can get that on the new network in a matter of a few days. They’ll also benefit from automation, newer hardware, and faster links. But if they really insist on deploying their application on the old network, he says, “Send me a ticket. I’ll try to procure the equipment that I don’t have in stock anymore. Decide for yourself.”
AthenaHealth is based in Watertown, Massachusetts. Its network supports 100,000 health care providers and 98 million patients across the country. All of its solutions are provided in web browsers. Its health care providers just need an Internet connection. Athena provides all the computing from its own data centers.
When the company evaluated ways to increase its data center capacity, Khomyakov and his team realized that white box hardware and open networking software would give it more flexibility.
“Previously, I would have to buy everything from a single vendor,” he said. “With open networking I can evaluate hardware independent from software.
The company chose Dell EMC for its hardware switches, running the Cumulus Linux OS. It also deployed Big Switch’s Big Monitoring Fabric, which also runs on the same Dell EMC hardware to provide network monitoring and insight into the data streams.
“By going with open networking hardware, we have positioned ourselves to be able to replace our hardware in a year or two if it no longer meets our needs,” said Khomyakov. “We’re also able to apply tools that have been available to the systems side like Puppet and Ansible to effectively manage the network.”