The political hurdle to data center consolidation

Politics and culture hold back efforts

Data center consolidation makes sense economically and as a way to achieve more efficient information technology operations, but cultural and political challenges have to be surmounted at the federal and state levels to make it happen, according to chief information officers speaking at the Government Technology Research Alliance conference.

The Office of Management and Budget is trying to lower costs associated with data centers and is working with agencies via the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative to develop agencywide data consolidation plans, which they have to integrate in their fiscal 2012 budget submissions.

The push to consolidate data centers makes sense because each of the more than 100 federal agencies has anywhere from five to 20 data centers, said Ken Griffey, transition manager for NASA’s National Center for Critical Information Processing and Storage, a federal shared services data center. NCCIPS hosts data centers for the Homeland Security and Transportation departments, as well as the Navy’s supercomputers.


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“Pure common sense says that we can save billions if we consolidate,” Griffey said.“I wonder how practical that is going to be. NASA has 10 fiefdoms. NASA appears to be an agency on the surface, but it is very politically driven for each state that has a NASA center."

The challenge, he said, results from the fact that NASA data centers provide jobs. It's unlikely that any state is going to volunteer to give up its data center and the 1,000 or so jobs the center provides.

"I see those as obstacles to data center consolidation. The obstacles are more in the political arena,” Griffey said.

NASA has been working on data center consolidation for two years, he said. The NASA Enterprise Data Center Request for Proposal will be coming out in September or October, which is a major deal for NASA, he said.

Griffey spoke on June 7 during a Data Center Consolidation panel at the GTRA meeting held in Bedford Springs, Pa. Joining Griffey on the panel were Paul Christy, chief technology officer of the Small Business Administration; and Stephen Fletcher, CIO of Utah and president of NASCIO.

The discussions around data consolidation have focused on green IT, resources and the depate over whether to go to the cloud. However, SBA officials have had to take 10 steps back and talk about client systems rationalization, Christy said. 

“Before you change hardware you need to take systems and determine how you rationalize them," Christy said. “In my case, I inherited a couple years ago a lot of client systems that had to do with credit, client-facing systems and stove-piped administrative systems.”

All of those systems had to be aligned for data center consolidation. The systems were all associated with client records. So SBA adapted a customer relationship management system that shrunk about 60 applications that had different versions of client records to about 14 with one client record, he said.

Then SBA took credit and loan systems and started moving them from old Cobol-based programs on mainframe computers to relational databases on Oracle Financials software. Time and attendance applications were move to a Microsoft SharePoint platform.

“So we are ending up with three categories of applications where we had 24,” he said. SBA has also been able to reduce the number of processors and storage systems and, as a result of all this activity, are better prepared to consider data centers consolidation in the cloud.

SBA has four data centers. They are in Irvine, Calif.; Denver, Colo.; Herndon, Va..; and Washington, D.C. The agency can’t collapse too much physically or geographically without losing some flexibility, Christy said. However, among these data centers there are more than 250 servers. Virtualization is the biggest consolidation effort going on now at SBA. Three-quarters of the servers are Microsoft Windows machines and the remaining are Sun Microsystems Solaris machines, he said.

For SBA, the obstacles are less about the states and more about internal cultiure. The agency's IT department employees prefer to have servers on site, he said.

Being the only representative from a state on the panel, Fletcher wanted attendees to understand challenges state governments face.

“Unlike the federal government we have to balance budget by law,” Fletcher said. So there is a financial incentive to lower costs. There might be some push-back because of lost of jobs. However, “if you can save millions of dollars in consolidation and that helps balance the budget, that is a good thing,” Fletcher said.

Data center consolidation simplifies operations, improves management and security issues. Utah has reduced 35 data centers down to two -- a primary and a backup center. Utah has also reduced the number of servers from 1,800 to 450 – about 80 percent virtualized. The state is moving forward with the virtualization of the remaining 20 percent of servers, Fletcher said.

By consolidating data centers, Utah can become a center of excellence, providing data center capabilities to cities and counties. The cities and counties can pay for data center services out of their operational budgets, he said.

“We know how to provide hosting services and infrastructure because we are part of the state and we offer this to our cities and counties,” Fletcher said. “For smaller cities this was a wonderful idea because they didn’t have to invest up front on this capital."

Reader Comments

Fri, Jun 11, 2010

A critical--and often forgotten component--of data center consolidation is the communications "pipes". As a long time federal employee, my experience has been that the Government does not have the big bandwidth pipes needed to support a small number of large data centers. In the middle of the work day, when everyone is at work on both the east and west coasts, network traffic is often noticeably slow. So what is going to happen when there is an increase by many magnitudes in network traffic? Without network redundancy to those few conslidated data centers, the network becomes a single point of failure. Network problems will mean a widespread loss in productivity. It sounds easy to say, let's move all the Government's computers to a small number of big data centers, but there is a lot more to it than physically moving servers!

Wed, Jun 9, 2010

Good example of why the decision needs to be taken out of the hands of the agency heads, at both federal and state/local levels. The people who pass the appropriations and write the checks need to mandate that all support services will be common-serviced where possible, absent a very compelling case why they should not be. Long-haul telecom would be another excellent area for common-servicing. I could name several more, but you get the idea. Of course, since the people who pass the appropriations and pay the bills are even more driven by politics, it will never happen.

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