Virtualization, full steam ahead
Virtualization is central to the FDCCI program and a major player in cloud computing, so cutbacks are not anticipated
Virtualization is not a cheap process, and depending on the degree to which IT assets are virtualized, it can be downright expensive. In the current environment of government budget cutbacks and long-term uncertainties, you’d think that would prompt agencies to at least rethink and pause some of their virtualization plans.
Far from it. According to a recent “Virtualization Vacuum” report by market researcher MeriTalk, agencies have no plans to cut back on virtualization. Some 82 percent of federal IT professionals say their agencies have already implemented server virtualization, and they expect their virtualized workloads to almost double in the next four years — from 37 percent to 63 percent.
There are various reasons for this. At the end of 2010, the Office of Management and Budget mandated a cloud-first approach to agency IT as part of the fiscal 2012 budget process, requiring agencies to use cloud-based solutions wherever such a secure and cost-effective option exists. Virtualization is a major enabler of cloud computing.
Earlier, OMB had published its Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI) as a way to cut down on the number of government data centers and thereby save on the real estate, energy and other costs associated with maintaining them. Virtualization is also central to that program.
Given the rate at which agencies were already consolidating their data centers, which was well beyond original expectations, Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel announced new FDCCI targets at the end of 2011. Agencies are now expected to close some 1,200 data centers by 2015, or 40 percent of those that existed when agencies first tallied them in 2010.
VanRoekel highlighted major savings at various agencies because of the consolidation. The Defense Department expected to save $3 billion by closing redundant data centers, he said. And all agencies now have detailed, written plans for how they expect to execute data center consolidation.
Beyond those mandates, however, it’s clear that agencies have concluded that virtualization simply makes sense for their futures. Using DOD’s projections as a basis, the MeriTalk survey found that agencies expect their savings from virtualization to grow to a total of $23.6 billion by 2015.
“The pressure on agencies to save money means that they will continue to push investments in things such as virtualization, even with all of the budget problems,” said Jim Smid, Chief Technology Officer at Iron Bow Technologies. “In the long run, they know it will save them dollars, even though they will have to invest money to save, so I don’t [expect] to see it stopping anytime soon.”
That reasoning is even more apparent outside the federal government, he added. State and local governments, which have less money than federal agencies, continue to invest heavily in virtualization to drive efficiencies in their data centers.
Nevertheless, there are potential bumps in the virtualization road. Slightly more than half of the federal respondents to the MeriTalk survey said they don’t have or are unsure of the funds needed to meet server virtualization goals. The time required to implement the plans and potential security problems also figured as significant barriers.
But the No. 1 reason given was the number of legacy systems and applications that are strewn throughout government, a holdover of the days when agencies bought hardware and software to meet some very specific needs. IT professionals say some of the servers and applications in their data centers can’t be virtualized because that would either degrade the performance of the legacy applications or because they can’t run on newer architectures and agencies don’t have the resources to re-engineer them.
That’s a potential problem even for the most successful agencies. In its November 2011 data center progress report and strategy, DOD, for example, warned that legacy systems imposed a significant cost burden.
“Although significant savings are expected in future years [from consolidation], those savings cannot be borrowed to fund required investments for consolidating data centers,” the report states. “Consolidation requires an investment in labor, new and more efficient hardware, upgrades to computer facilities, and increased operating costs when some legacy systems run in parallel with new systems.”
Another MeriTalk survey in January 2011, conducted with the Unisys Center for Innovation in Government, estimated that federal agencies spend some $36 billion a year on maintaining legacy systems. That’s half of the overall federal IT budget.
However, some sources say recent survey figures could be misleading. At 37 percent, current virtualized loads could represent the low-hanging fruit that virtualizing and consolidation provides agencies, and future savings will be harder to realize. In addition to obstacles such as legacy applications, agency IT employees “have still got to get their jobs done every day, and this virtualization takes a lot of time,” said Mark Weber, president of NetApp’s U.S. Public Sector.
“But the technology is so compelling that we’re not even trying to sell this at the executive level in agencies,” he added. “We’re selling it directly to the IT folks because they tell us that they don’t have the money they used to and they need this technology to help them get things done more efficiently at less cost.”
Therefore, despite budget pressures and other potential problems, “the IT guys will [use virtualization] regardless,” Weber said.
The totality of what virtualization brings to agencies will ultimately convince them, Smid said. Beyond complying with the government consolidation and cloud mandates, virtualization brings benefits such as the elimination of maintenance windows, being able to bring up a new application and server in minutes rather than days, having a high availability of server capacity versus what was available with the old server clustering software, and so on.
“It’s just too compelling,” Weber said. “Virtualization is one of the best ways to drive efficiencies into the data center, and that will only continue.”