smarter data centers

Smarter data centers

IT managers at federal agencies have their marching orders. A memorandum issued on Aug. 1 by the Office of Management and Budget advised agency staff of a new set of rules -- as well as savings goals for data centers -- requiring reduced energy usage, real estate footprints and costs.

The new requirements – outlined in the Data Center Optimization Initiative -- continue the push for consolidation and closure of existing data centers mandated by the 2010 Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative. The new initiative also calls for increased use of cloud infrastructure and requires agencies to install automated tools for monitoring energy usage and managing inventory.

OMB also has set very specific goals for data center cost savings. DCOI calls for savings of $2.7 billion by the end of fiscal year 2018, a figure that is half of the total of $5.4 billion spent on data centers during fiscal year 2014.

And there’s some teeth in DCOI. Beginning in February, agencies are prohibited from funding a new data center or expanding an existing one without specific approval from OMB.

According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, federal agencies closed 3,125 of 10,584 data centers between 2010 and the end of 2015, resulting in an estimated $2.8 billion in saving. What’s more, 21 of the agencies contacted by the GAO project a further $5.4 billion in savings through fiscal year 2019.

“It’s not smoke and mirror stuff,” said David Powner, director of IT issues at GAO and author of the report. “It’s real money.”

According to Powner, a small subset of federal agencies has been doing the “heavy lifting” in reaching those totals. Powner noted that nearly 85 of data center closures have come from just four departments: Agriculture, Interior, Defense and Treasury. And $2.4 billion of the $2.8 billion in savings so far has come from four departments: Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security and Treasury. “Bravo to them,” he said. “We should applaud them.”

IT staff at some federal agencies and departments -- even those that have been able to make headway in cutting back on data center spending -- note that in some cases they face special challenges in meeting future goals.

Former Defense Department Principal Deputy CIO David DeVries noted in a February letter to GAO that some of its “special purpose processing nodes” -- essentially small data centers that service remote equipment or facilities -- offer little opportunity for consolidation. DeVries, who is now CIO of the Office of Personnel Management, also cited tight budgets as a hurdle. “Having to reuse existing facilities limits the potential” for meeting OMB’s goals, he wrote.

Similarly, Energy Department CIO Michael Johnson told GAO that due to the department’s dispersed equipment and mission-specific facilities that required on-site data centers, “it is not always feasible to consolidate or relocate the computing infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that many agencies have unique data center requirements, some vendors say that there is still plenty of room for cutting data center costs.

Christian Heiter, CTO of Engineering at Hitachi Data Systems Federal, points especially to the availability of new Internet-of-Things-based sensors for monitoring conditions in data centers as an opportunity to reduce energy costs.

The sensors can “tell you what is happening in your data center,” Heiter said, so you can improve cooling efficiency, for example. Rather than pumping a whole room full of cold air, “there may be places in your data center that can be a little bit warmer,” he said. The sensors can indicate the “places that have to be colder, so you concentrate the air on those particular sectors.”

Heiter added that federal clients he is familiar with are only just beginning to deploy IoT sensor systems.

More savings can be expected, he said, through greater use of newer storage technologies. “Storage in the last 20 or 30 years has been about spinning hard disk drives,” Heiter said. “They take up a lot of power, they generate a lot of heat. We’ve got new technologies, like flash storage, that run much cooler and that don't have the same kind of airflow requirements.”

Heiter said he believes DCOI’s focus on the data center ecosystem will encourage greater efficiencies. “It is holding the facility managers, the program managers, responsible to look at the whole ecosystem -- look at power, look at storage, look at networks,” he said. “It’s also encouraging them to work with other programs and missions, to go partnering, put things together. And it is also providing some funding to help them pull that off.”

Jeffrey Chabot, director of federal segment strategy at Schneider Electric, agrees. “Going from consolidation to optimization, while keeping consolidation, I think it’s going to save taxpayers a lot of money over the next few years,” Chabot said. “They’re just starting this now.”

And like Heiter, Chabot said that sensor-driven data center infrastructure management systems are key to achieving further savings. “What a lot of data centers are doing today is manual collection,” he said. “They will put an electrical meter and measure a loader output for X amount of time -- it might be for 24 hours or 48 hours -- and you’re going to get a number. But it’s a very unscientific number.”

While Chabot said he believes the goals set by the OMB are “aggressive,” he added that “I don’t think they’re untouchable by any means.”

Powner said he thinks there may even be a possibility that the goals can be surpassed, though the 2018 deadline might be a tad too early. “If the agencies are telling us there is $8.2 billion in savings, there is going to be more,” he said. Still, “there are some agencies I know that have [pushed their timelines] into 2019.”

Editor's note: This article was changed Nov. 1 to correct Christian Heiter's title.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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