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Russell Branzell, CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives
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HealthCare.gov computing change puzzles IT experts


By Virgil Dickson
Posted: August 27, 2014 - 1:45 pm ET
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The CMS is planning on a change in data-hosting tactics as it seeks a new contractor to run HealthCare.gov. The agency expects the change will help avoid glitches in the exchange site operations but some IT professionals are scratching their heads about whether it will actually help.

CMS' decision was disclosed in a request for proposals it released to begin its search for the next contractor for the federal marketplace. The agency expanded upon the decision in a Q&A document (PDF) that included the questions interested vendors submitted to the agency about the RFP.

The plan is to cease hosting data on what are known as virtual servers. A virtual server is essentially part of a computer that has been converted into something that operates like a separate computer with its own operating system and software. Going forward, the CMS wants its vendor to house HealthCare.gov data on actual servers, or entire machines dedicated to the task at hand.

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When one curious vendor asked why, the agency responded that such a move would be necessary to ensure a seamless registration for the anticipated 8 million to 9 million consumers that it expects to utilize the site during the upcoming open-enrollment period.

“During the first year of the (federal exchange), hosting of databases on virtual machines was identified as a potential contributing factor to overall system performance bottlenecks and possible support issues from the database manufacturers not certifying their product on a virtual platform,” the agency says in the Q&A document. “CMS made the decision to migrate databases to physical machines to eliminate one possible point of performance contention.”

The IT community isn't entirely convinced, however. “The change from virtual to physical environments seems expensive and old-school,” said Russell Branzell, CEO of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives.

“Virtual computing is quite mature nowadays and many large-scale and mission-critical systems are built off that concept,” said Kai Zheng, an associate professor of information at the University of Michigan.

Others say the change is likely because the CMS wasn't able to find the help it needs should something go wrong with the virtual servers. “They are most likely making the switch to physical machines because some database vendors will only offer limited support” for virtual machines, said Michael Gregg, chief operating officer of IT security firm Superior Solutions.

The deadline to respond to the RFP is Sept. 18. Accenture, which now holds the contract, was hired on a $90 million one-year agreement in January to take control of the site from CGI Federal, the company that built HealthCare.gov.

Follow Virgil Dickson on Twitter: @MHvdickson


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