OpenStack and Software Freedom in Healthcare IT

As clinicians, doctors and other healthcare providers are the stewards of their patients data. But what happens when they lose control over that healthcare data? Most people focus on what happens when that private data becomes too available. But far more commonly healthcare data becomes trapped. Far too often, it becomes buried in one way or another, lost forever and useless to patients.

I am probably the most vocal proponent of the notion that software freedom, the heart and soul of the Open Source movement is the only way to do healthcare software. Over that time I have tried to highlight the threat posed by vendor lock-in with healthcare software. But “vendor-lock” is not the only way that healthcare data can become buried. Ignacio Valdes was the first to make this case clearly against ASP healthcare solutions with his post about how Browser Based EMR’s Threaten Software Freedom . That was written in 2007.

So you can imagine the types of concerns Ignacio and I had as we built Astronaut Shuttle (very much beta) together. Ignacio had the VistA EHR chops and I had enough cloud experience to create the first-ever cloud based EHR offering. Its a simple system, you can use a simplified web interface to launch cloud-based instances of an EHR. The main difference between this kind of web interface, and something like RightScale, is that the launching system performed whole-disk encryption, allowing you to ensure that Amazon could not access your healthcare data. As far as I know, no one else has built anything like this but us (love to hear otherwise in comments).

Why are we some of the few people trying things like this? For one thing , encryption is pretty difficult to do in the cloud,  there are lots of approaches and it is pretty easy to brick a cloud instance with an improper encryption configuration.

But more importantly, there is a perception that storing private healthcare data in the cloud is a bad idea, dangerous because it meant putting all of your eggs in one basket.

Given how concerned Ignacio and I were about vendor lock, and ASP lock, you can imagine our feelings about cloud lock. We had to be sure that our customers, doctors and other clinicians, would be able to restore linux images containing precious EHR data off-site using off-site backups.

When we looked out across the available cloud options we decided to implement our service using Amazons ec2 service, specifically because of  Eucalyptus an open source implementation of the Amazon cloud hosting infrastructure.

However, we have been deeply concerned about this approach. Currently, you might say that Amazon has a “friendly” relationship with Eucalyptus, which of course means that Amazon has not crushed it like an itty-bitty bug. For Amazon, being able to point out that there were FOSS implementations available made it easier for ec2 to acquire certain customers. At the same time by refusing to treat the ec2 and other AWS api’s as open standards, or to specifically state they would not sue an open source implementation of their API, Amazon could always ensure that Eucalyptus would never be a threat.

“What a minute!” you might say… “Amazon is a Linux-friendly company! They would -never- betray the community by going after Eucalyptus…”

I think the Open Source community needs to wake up to corporations whose basic legal stance towards Open Source projects is to leave open the “smash if they succeed” option.

IBM has been a “friend” to the community for years. IBM even promised not to use specific software patents against us. They assured us that they are not a threat. But then they broke that promise. The broke it because someone in the community decided to implement software that threatened to break their monopoly on mainframe implementations. IBM turned on our community just as soon as our freedom started to threaten their bottom line. You are kidding yourself if you think Amazon will lose a billion dollars to Eucalytpus without reacting. Amazon has been very aggressive in acquiring software patents and will use them if Open Source implementations ever really get good.

I think Eucalytpus is an awesome project but it lives at the whim of a corporation who tolerates it precisely because it is not a business threat.

It was with great trepidation that Ignacio and I built a health data infrastructure that we knew relied on the whim of a really big bookstore. (When you say it like that… you can see the problem more clearly)

With that said, I am happy to support and endorse the new OpenStack project. OpenStack is a move by Rackspace Cloud, the number one competitor to Amazon, to completely Open Source their cloud infrastructure. They will be releasing this work under the Apache license.

Open Source license are the only trust currency that I, as health software developer, can trust to ensure that no one can ever trap health data with software that I have recommended. “Probably won’t trap” or “Open Source friendly” simply do not cut it after IBM. Simply put, a full Open Source release is the most extreme thing that Rackspace can do to win my trust in their cloud infrastructure.

I have also been discussing with the Rackspace team about the importance of building in support for cloud-initiated-encryption and cloud audit (thanks for the tip samj)  into Open Stack.  These are must-have features to make healthcare data in the could a viable option.

As soon as we have the dev cycles available, we will be moving Astronaut Shuttle over to the Rackspace Cloud. I invite anyone who gives a damn about Software Freedom, or health information software generally, to follow us over.


3 thoughts on “OpenStack and Software Freedom in Healthcare IT”

  1. Great point, Fred. One part of EMR selection that is being overlooked is how likely a company is to hold your data more or less hostage. As always, open source will lead the way, but for the good of the industry as a whole EMR vendors should make data standards that can be transferred to and read by an EMR. In the coming months and years this problem will definitely be brought up, hopefully companies can have the foresight to fix it now instead of trying to monopolize the market.

    Awesome post, I hadnt even thought of this!

  2. The IBM/Hercules story is controversial. Groklaw and Boycott Novell suspect Microsoft trickery and that IBMs target deserved to be crushed like a bug.

  3. Someday I will write a response detailing why I think the data portability is something of a pipe dream. But it would still be a little better than the complete lock-in that we have today

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