Agencies scramble to inventory their data centers by March 1

Exactly how many computers, computer operators, systems
programmers and administrative staffers does a modern government data center need?
Agencies are scrambling to find out.


The final answer is due in June, when all agencies must submit data center
consolidation strategies to the Office of Management and Budget.


But clues for solving the consolidation riddle are starting to emerge as agencies wrap
up work on data center inventory reports due March 1.


Most agencies have completed their initial data and site surveys. But some still must
reconcile their internal definitions with OMB's standards for large, small and midsized
computing platforms.


Differences in the ways agencies organize and staff their centers could have
substantial impact when it's time to devise consolidation strategies or request waivers,
officials said.


"I've received eight to 10 calls per week from people asking how the OMB bulletin
applies to them," said John Ortego, a deputy commissioner of the General Services
Administration's Information Technology Service and head of the Federal Systems Management
Center. "A number of agencies already contract out these services. But those costs
must still be reported."


"We have the results from our data call and are in the process of reviewing some
of the definitions," said Nada Harris, deputy assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs
for IRM. "We did have some discussions with GSA relative to our interpretation of a
MIPS [millions of instructions per second] rating, to translate it from one type of
machine to another. The way some of the nomenclature gets used, there can be different
meanings."


As far as OMB is concerned, a data center is any information processing operation with
a staff of five or more full-time employees who handle agency applications, time-sharing
services, office automation and records management services through a central facility.


The inventory bulletin directs agencies to produce an aggregate account of their data
center resources and costs. The account must list data center names and locations, each
center's primary mission and hardware configurations. Agencies also must report their
costs for equipment purchases, leases, software licenses, communications, utilities,
contract services, maintenance and staffing.


OMB officials say the reports should be a simple task for agencies. Developing the
consolidation plans will be trickier. OMB will review the plans with the intention of
carrying out the consolidations as part of the fiscal 1998 budget process.


Anxiety is growing among data center employees. Tallying resources is the first step
toward eliminating half of the government's 200 data centers and probably some of the
jobs. Unless an agency can persuade OMB that it performs a unique or critical function,
there is no sure way to avoid shutting down centers smaller than the 400-MIPS threshold
set by OMB.


Nevertheless, agencies retain the authority to decide which centers to close and merge.


At the Health and Human Services Department, senior IT officials are trying to make
these judgments quickly. Neil Stillman, deputy assistant secretary of HHS for IRM, said
his department created has a committee of senior IRM officials and hired a contractor to
assess data center operations and develop a consolidation plan.


HHS officials are banking that a swift consolidation will lead to more cross-servicing
opportunities, Stillman said.


"We're trying to beat the deadlines and use that to the department's
advantage," he said. "We want to be ready to accept outside business, and our
goal is to be done early."


Differences in system architectures and in charge-back schemes are likely to be
evaluation issues.


The government needs a standard charge-back algorithm for reviewing costs and services,
said Don Fulford, chief of the North Carolina General Assembly's Information Systems
Division. He headed the Environmental Protection Agency's National Data Processing
Division for several years.


Fulford, former president of the Council of Federal Data Center Directors, said the
wide disparity in data center services and accounting methods makes it hard to compare
costs and services.


"Consolidation is the right thing to do, and this shouldn't be rocket science. But
what are the priorities and what are the meaningful changes?" he said. "With all
the variations, such as on-line services and help desks, it is nearly impossible to
determine the true costs. Benchmarks are expensive, so a standard charge-back policy would
make it easier."


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