Can agencies cut 800 data centers? Maybe, but here's what's in the way.

Funding, complexity could stymie OMB-25 Plans

Agency managers might find it easier meeting the administration’s “cloud first” mandates than achieving some of the data center consolidation goals laid out last month in the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point plan to reform federal IT management, industry observers say.

Data center migration is a complex task that requires a lot of money, and it is not clear where that funding will come from given the present economic climate, some observers said.

As part of the plan, the Obama administration wants to consolidate 800 of the government’s 2,100 data centers by 2015. The plan extends guidance issued in February 2010, when the administration launched the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative. The cloud-first policy requires agencies to move three applications over the next 12 to 18 months to the cloud, a computing model where shared resources, software and information are provided to users on-demand.

Compared to moving applications such as e-mail to a cloud computing environment, data center consolidation is going to take serious cash, said Bruce Hart, chief operating officer for cloud service provider Terremark Federal Group and a former IT director of the CIA.

“I don’t think [Federal CIO] Vivek Kundra has done an adequate job to date to identify the source of funding for all of this, because data center consolidation is a fairly expensive proposition,” he said.

Hitting the 2015 target can be achieved, but it will take a lot of planning, said Bob Otto, executive vice president of advisory services with Agilex, an IT consulting firm. A former CIO at the U.S. Postal Service, Otto helped consolidate 18 large data centers and close down 350 remote sites at USPS.

By the middle of this year, agencies will begin consolidating their "low-hanging" remote sites to demonstrate that it can be done and to symbolically show success, Otto said. As a result, by the end of the 2011, “we will probably see 250 sites closed.”

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Still, closing larger data centers is much more of a challenge, but it's something that can be achieved. “I believe there is a great deal of confidence that the 800 centers closed by 2015 will be achieved,” Otto, said, noting that it will save the government money in the long run.

To meet the administration’s 2015 target, OMB is working with agency CIOs, the Federal CIO Council and the General Services Administration to lay the groundwork for successful execution.

For example, the 25-point plan requires OMB and agency CIOs to identify agency data center program managers to lead consolidation efforts. Additionally, over the next two months, the CIO Council will launch a Data Center Consolidation Task Force to focus on successful execution. OMB will establish a publicly available dashboard to track data center consolidation progress. And, within the next 18 months, OMB and GSA will create a governmentwide marketplace that better utilizes spare capacity within operational data centers.

Calling all program managers

Establishing program managers is a necessary first step, but the question is whether that should be done at the agency level or above, Terremark’s Hart said. Typically, task forces don’t ensure execution of anything, he said, adding that that’s why government rushes to establish so-called czar positions.

Hart said he’s not suggesting that a national data center consolidation czar be appointed. However, there needs to be a single leader with relentless tenacity to push this kind of complex program through.

Having senior program managers assigned to lead the project will be critical over the next few years, Otto said. However, agency managers should view them as not just project managers but as some of the most senior IT executives within the organization.

If done properly, data center consolidation can transform every aspect of an IT organization, having an impact on enterprise architecture, contracting, the development and provisioning of new systems, organization structure and IT governance and security.

Regarding the creation of a data center consolidation task force, “my concern is that the membership suggests that the primary focus will be on facilities,” Otto said. Similar groups will be needed to address the IT transformation implications of data center consolidation, he said, as well as the change-management requirements and the people issues.

Tracking success

The OMB dashboard to track progress sounds like a reasonable idea, observers said.

“Ultimately, what gets measured gets done,” said Gigi Schumm, vice president and general manager of Symantec Public Sector. It is important that the evaluation metrics be more substantial than soft requirements, Schumm said.

For example, it would be interesting to see performance metrics that would include reporting similar to what is being done by the Homeland Security Department with the CyberScope security initiative. There should an emphasis on providing common data center metrics on utilization, performance and security. Well-defined timelines, milestones and impact results must also be monitored in order to truly determine progress, Schumm said.

“Beyond whatever OMB implements in terms of reporting, I would also recommend that CIOs create ‘war rooms’ to support their planning,” Otto said. For an initiative of this size, there are thousands of metrics and steps to track regularly, he said.

Harnessing extra capacity

The plan to create a governmentwide marketplace for extra capacity drew mixed reactions.

The online marketplace will improve the utilization of existing facilities, according to the OMB 25-plan.

“The marketplace will help agencies with available capacity promote their available data center space," according to OMB's plan. "Once agencies have a clear sense of the existing capacity landscape, they can make more informed consolidation decisions."

It’s a charming idea, but a bit naive, Hart said. “I’ve never known an agency that admits to extra capacity in any regard,” he said. It is a funding issue, he said, noting that it is difficult to get federal funding for IT projects. They don’t generate excitement and require multiyear commitments. So if agencies have anything that is spare, they are not going to define it that way in defending their budget programs, Hart said.

It's a great concept but very complex to put in practice, Schumm said. There are trust and data security issues when dealing with shared resource models. This is apparent with the first wave of cloud adoption, Schumm said.

Plus, as data centers are reduced, the amount of information being created is doubling year over year with even greater data growth rates anticipated with the introduction of new mobile devices. This will have ramifications on data centers in the future.

“Extra capacity may need to be redefined in the very near future,” Schumm said.

To increase efficiency, managers should focus on smaller agencies consolidating their IT requirements at the department level or governmentwide, Agilex’s Otto said. It is not cost-effective for these agencies to run their own data centers.

“We might also direct some larger agencies to serve as Tier 1 private cloud providers for all of government,” Otto said. They could develop government-specific services that would rival the best of the commercial sector, he added.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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