Naval hospital launches network computer pilot project

In one of the federal government's first known experiments with network computers the Naval Medical Center in San Diego recently began to install 50 of the so-called NCs to test if the stripped-down computers can be used throughout the hospital.

The medical center plans to install the NCs in the obstetrics and gynecology unit to act as a single point of access for office applications and the hospital's centralized databases. If the NCs which are IBM Corp. Network Stations prove useful the medical center may replace the 2 000 dumb terminals throughout the hospital with NCs said a hospital official familiar with the program.

Medical center officials could not estimate how much the NCs cost but an IBM NC costs about $999 on the commercial market. Introducing NCs NCs which debuted last year were designed to make managing computer networks easier by centralizing end-user applications on a server instead of storing them on a PC's hard drive. They also were designed to make computer network management less expensive by eliminating the need to individually configure manage and update multiple machines.

NCs are like PCs without a hard drive the NCs are capable of running Java Virtual Machine. JVM allows NCs to run Java-enabled applications from a server. For NCs software applications are downloaded from the server and executed using the machine's RAM. For years the medical center has used dumb terminals to gain access to the Defense Department's Composite Health Care System which is a centralized database used by hospital physicians nurses technicians and administrators for everything from scheduling appointments to entering patient information and ordering radiology studies. The NCs would perform the same function.

"For us it's a matter of dollars as well as management " said Lt. Dave Lile the hospital's chief information officer. A hospital the size of San Diego's has about 5 000 nodes Lile said and 2 000 of those are dumb terminals. By purchasing the NCs the hospital saved about $1 500 per machine in initial up-front costs vs. buying standard PCs Lile said and the hospital saved another $1 200 per machine per year in management and support costs. IBM officials declined to comment until the installation is complete.But others are skeptical of the advantages that NCs provide to the federal government.

"The NC was designed for the home user who wants a cheap answer to Internet access " said Bob Guerra an IT marketing consultant for Government Technology Services Inc. "It has been mis-targeted to the government as a general solution. If [the government] wants a cheap computer to access the Internet we already have it it's called a 486. What we have with the NC is a solution looking for a problem."

More than three-quarters of the federal government operates a 486 or higher according to market research firm IDC Government Falls Church Va. And computer software vendors offer products that can boost the power of 486s. For example Citrix Systems Inc.'s WinFrame 1.7 product will allow agencies to run 32-bit applications on older 286- 386- and 486-class PCs.Still other naval hospitals are considering buying NCs. In Florida for example Naval Hospital Jacksonville is researching whether to lease NCs.

"The [dumb terminal] is just not enough anymore as our users become computer-literate " CIO Lt. Michael R. Green said. "As an administrator my needs are considerably less. I need access to e-mail the Internet and basic word processing spreadsheet and presentation applications all of which could be met by the NC."

But the information resources management division at the naval hospital in Lemoor Calif. said only about 10 percent of its computers are dumb terminals and the hospital has no plans to replace those terminals with NCs. Dumb Terminals vs. Standard Desktops

"Ninety percent of our [dumb terminal] systems have been replaced by standard desktops which have [dumb terminal] emulation software and provide a single point of access for our users " said a source familiar with the hospital's IT infrastructure. In addition Jacksonville's Green said that IT administrators must consider a broad list of requirements when purchasing a computer for the hospital reinforcing the notion that the NC is just a niche solution.

"As we move into an electronic medical record environment as well as...telemedicine clinicians will need multimedia PCs capable of handling video sound and high-resolution graphics " he said. The major NC manufacturers are planning to meet in January 1998 to hash out standards for the platform - standards that will allow NCs to operate with a wider array of servers and to provide users with a common interface. But for Lile and his team at San Diego it is full steam ahead. "We've taken this one step further " he said. "We're actually running these NCs over a wireless [local-area network] within the clinic."


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