Part 1 of a 2-part series on Cloud Computing for Orthodontic Practices By Craig Scholz
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before... It’s a busy Monday afternoon in your office when your office manager tells you that your server is getting error messages because it is running low on drive space. You immediately contact your IT person (which in many cases is you) to discuss your options. After exploring these you decide to purchase a new server, updated operating system (OS), Sequel Server (SQL) and backup device with software and antivirus. You find out you will also need to upgrade the SQL on all your workstations and will need new versions of several Microsoft products to support the new server. This will cost you two down days, some additional training and more than $15,000. You’re not happy about any of this, but you almost blow a gasket when you find out that more than half of this cost is for “software.” You drive home questioning how needing more space on your hard drive ended up costing you $15,000!
How happy would you be if you never had to go through this scenario again? An increasing number of small business owners have been delighted to leave behind their in-house servers and IT support by moving to the cloud. So many in fact, that Gartner (www.gartner.com) predicts more than half of all software will reside in the “cloud” by 2014. And while a move to Internet-based computing is not a panacea, it has enough upside that many orthodontists are tallying up their IT costs and headaches and making the move. This article will discuss the pros and cons of cloud computing and will educate you on some of the primary variables involved in this widespread transition from in-house servers to true Internet-based computing.
What is Cloud Computing?
There are about as many definitions of cloud computing as there are orthodontic appliances – but in its basic sense, cloud computing is location-independent computing, where shared servers provide resources, software and data on demand. Instead of storing data in your office, it resides in an off-site facility that serves, maintains, updates and backs up your files. These services are provided with monthly service fees just like your Internet and telephone services. In essence, you lease these IT services rather than purchasing them. In many ways, cloud computing is a natural extension of the expanding Internet and amounts of data accessed and stored across the globe. Data-hosting facilities house hundreds and even thousands of processors and are certified at increasingly stringent levels called SAS levels. When IT is outsourced to the cloud, the end user no longer has to have the expertise to set up and maintain his or her computer infrastructure. Cloud computing provides a delivery model of IT services based on scalable resources, so it is easy to add storage, users and other features. Software generally takes the form of applications the user can access through a Web browser or local client, just as if the full system were installed locally on his or her computer.
Cloud computing actually began in the late 1960s with the advent of large supercomputers and is designed to follow a model much like the distribution of electricity and other utilities. Instead of purchasing your own generator to create power when you move into a home, you buy it from the utility company which produces it in great volume. Similarly, by centralizing servers and data processing, new levels of efficiency and optimization are reached in the cloud. Many orthodontists are already using existing cloud computing applications such as Google, Facebook, iWork and others.
Cloud computing has been growing at exponential rates over the last several years, with Gartner declaring it the number-one new technology for 2010. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the cloud computing industry is estimated to reach $42 billion by 2012 – nearly half the entire software business. Significant changes have occurred over the last several years with orthodontic computer usage as well. Today’s orthodontists manage all kinds of patient data, and increasingly their patients and referrals demand access to this data as well. It is not uncommon for an orthodontic office to require access to management data, 2D and 3D imaging, electronic treatment records, appointment confirmation and online patient access – all from multiple locations. Many doctors, patients and referrers also increasingly need this information on mobile devices as well, and these devices are burgeoning with social networking applications such as Facebook and Twitter. Cloud computing dramatically opens up the availability to all this data.
Benefits of the Cloud
The main driving force toward cloud adoption is the same across all business, namely decreased costs and greater efficiencies. By outsourcing servers, software licensing and other expensive IT to a data center, businesses can decrease their bottom line and move away from the complexities of maintaining their networks. And while the reduced cost of an Internet-based system might not be as great for the orthodontist as it is for IBM, consider your IT spending over the last three years. Typical orthodontists spend between one to two percent of their revenue on computers and IT (and much more at startup), but many orthodontists are shocked to see the actual amount on their yearly P&L. And in many cases, cost is secondary to the elimination of the regular maintenance, backups, software updates and upgrades. Outsourcing your IT can be a relief to your wallet and also to your psyche. But remember that cloud computing will not completely eliminate your IT costs or your need for IT support. Unless you are skilled and enjoy purchasing, installing and maintaining your computers, you likely will still need a network administrator.
Is accessing your office data like trying to reach patients in retention? With cloud computing’s more centralized and open platform, you can access your system anywhere at any time. Since all of your data is available 24/7 in a data facility, remote offices, home locations, remote locations and mobile devices are all accessible to the same database. This benefit is especially significant for larger offices, which currently are forced to use a variety of servers and software systems to connect. Cloud computing eliminates this issue by only requiring an Internet connection. Since data is stored on servers in the cloud, it is easy to expand and upgrade as you go. Using our previous example, let’s say that you run of out of drive space on your existing server. Instead of upgrading or replacing it, in the cloud you just pay for more space. This is true for many aspects of computing including additional capacity, speed, processing power and user access. Costly software licensing fees are eliminated as the systems are centralized in the cloud.
Later this week we'll dive into the Limitations of the Cloud and discuss whether or not you should move your office to the cloud.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Craig Scholz has been with Ortho2 since 1987 and serves as the Director of Emerging Technologies. He also serves on the Ortho2 Board of Directors. He graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1986, and later received his Ph.D. from Pepperdine University. In addition to his work with Ortho2, Craig owns two Orbit Imaging centers in southern California and maintains an active interest in conebeam 3D scanning and its application in orthodontics. His focus is on integrating new technologies in orthodontics which increase productivity, decrease costs, and assist in improving treatment.