Consolidated data center under construction

As agency data centers close, measurement tools take center stage

Federal agencies report progress in meeting the Obama administration’s goals to consolidate data centers across the government, according to an update on data center closures by Data.gov.

The Office of Management and Budget website shows the government is on track to close 651 data centers by the end of 2013, based on information on closures posted by 20 agencies. Overall, OMB is committed to consolidating over 1,200 data centers -– about 40 percent of 3,133 targeted facilities -- by the end of 2015, an effort that it projects will save nearly  $3 billion.

But government and industry executives involved in the consolidation drive say reaping real savings from the effort will require agencies to adopt new technologies, including unified computing and improved business analysis systems, to achieve a more meticulous accounting of costs, a sharper focus on cutting duplicative systems and a commitment to tapping shared services opportunities.

To help monitor these goals, the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI), launched in 2010, will be integrated more closely with PortfolioStat, a program introduced in March to help scrutinize an agency’s entire IT portfolio with an eye toward eliminating duplicative IT services.

PortfolioStat will broaden IT under review to include data centers -- IT hardware, software and desktop systems as well as e-mail, collaboration tools, financial management and human resource systems could also fall under the commodity IT umbrella.  The PortfolioStat review requires agencies to identify and consolidate two duplicative commodities IT services by December 31, according to Bernard Mazer, CIO of the Interior Department and chair of the FDCCI.

OMB will release a report on the status of agencies’ consolidation efforts during December and provide further details on how some of FDCCI’s parameters for measuring data center assets and costs will be incorporated into PortfolioStat, Mazer said at a recent conference on data centers and cloud computing.

David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, put the emphasis on developing ways to measure the value of the ongoing data consolidation effort.  “A key point going forward with data center consolidation under the PortfolioStat umbrella is: what are the key metrics? Focusing on larger data centers and dollar savings will be key,” he said.

GAO’s recommendation: OMB’s federal CIO should ensure that agencies use a standardized cost model to improve consolidation planning, and use recognized best practices when establishing schedules and cost estimates for their consolidation efforts.

Data orchestration tools

A July GAO report on federal data center consolidation efforts noted agency success stories along these lines, including the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, which had already closed 11 data centers in fiscal year 2012 and was using virtualization technologies to reduce all remote sites to either one or two physical servers.

Going forward, agency IT managers will have to raise their level of sophistication in applying virtualization technology, according to Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions, which supplies virtualization technology to the government, healthcare and other industries.  Specifically, managers need to become more aware of and implement orchestration tools, he said.

Orchestration tools act as a management console working between the virtualization system and the end user.  These tools give IT administrators a business view of resources so they can see application-level workloads, Brown said.   As a result, they are able to determine the most appropriate set of resources to run a particular workload on. 

Orchestration tools can also give administrators and business users a single view of application workloads across multiple data centers. This type of technology needs to be pushed so the business person can manipulate workloads to improve performance without interacting with an IT administrator, Brown noted.

Additionally, “we need to see more shared government services for community clouds,” Brown added. “This is the vision of the [data center consolidation] program, anyway.” Authentication services, file storage and database management are all services that could be moved to government community clouds, said Brown. For agencies that are using only 10 percent of available compute resources, these types of resources can be shut off and the agencies can use shared resources instead.

Agencies also need to be pushed a little harder to get rid of old gear and storage devices in their data centers that consume a lot of power. “The challenge we are going to have is [that] the budget is not going to be there to support a lot of these efforts over the next couple of year,” Brown said.  It will be hard for agencies to meet these mandates in the absence of a budget, he continued, emphasizing the need for agencies to begin sharing resources and services.

Unified computing systems

Agency managers should also think about deploying pre-configured, unified computing platforms that integrate compute resources, networking and storage in an integrated platform, executives said. This will reduce the need for different types of IT and network administrators, according to Rich Campbell, chief technologist at EMC Federal. You can have just a data center administrator, which will free up resources, he said.

While all agencies have data center consolidation and optimization as well as cost reduction efforts under way, the process is moving at a snail’s pace, said Anthony Robbins, vice president of federal sales at Brocade, a developer of network solutions that help organizations move to virtual environments.

Data center consolidation efforts are “either going slowly or stalled because the government is trying to figure out what their budget situation is, or how much money they have to spend,” Robbins said. 

And the government will still have too many data centers even if 1,200 are shuttered by 2015, he added. His recommendation: Agencies need to move more aggressively to “anything-as-a-service or cloud-like services” that will help draw down more data centers and ultimately position agencies to better improve citizen services and support the military.

Finally, “stop doing legacy stuff,” said Robbins. Maintaining legacy systems raises the cost of IT operations and increases risks.  But application and infrastructure modernization “hasn’t quite happened across the federal government as it [has] across the commercial space,” he noted.

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