Reaping the benefits of net monitoring and IT consolidation

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Reaping the benefits of net monitoring and IT consolidation

Federal and state government is placing increasing emphasis on the consolidation of data centers and a better accounting of IT inventory in general. While many policies and practices can help, network monitoring is perhaps the best and simplest.

Most government organizations employ some level of network monitoring, but very few have the capability to look across the hybrid environment, physical and cloud, to find redundancies in their infrastructure. At University of Maryland University College (UMUC), we’ve adopted unified network monitoring across all our platforms.

The result is a decrease in IT servers by about 97 percent, and a reduction in data centers by about 40 percent. Our colleagues on the state and federal level could benefit from this approach as well and make it easier to comply with IT procurement and maintenance requirements.

UMUC is effectively the largest public online university in the United States. As part of the University System of Maryland, UMUC serves nearly 84,000 students worldwide and 5,000 faculty and staff. Our locations range from College Park Md., to Kaiserslautern, Germany, to Yokota, Japan.

With this many disparate locations, it’s not surprising that our IT infrastructure was similarly disjointed. When I started at UMUC three years ago,  we had five data centers around the world, a vast array of hardware and five different network monitoring systems. There was no single, integrated snapshot of how our network was performing.

Clearly, we needed to bring together network engineering, application support, security operations, server monitoring and all of our associated engineering teams. That meant standardizing along a single solution for network monitoring and system operation. In our case, we preferred a software-as-a-service approach and settled on the Austin, Texas-based provider Zenoss for that service.

From there, my team and I were tasked to migrate as much as possible to the cloud (using Amazon Web Services as the cloud platform). Our goal was to reduce physical IT infrastructure to only essential hardware that we maintained on premise.

There is no question that unified network monitoring made that task manageable. Using monitoring across an evolving hybrid network allowed us to see how machines across all our data centers were interacting. And as we made the cloud transition, monitoring also ensured that our network was performing optimally.

That’s a key point. In general, IT organizations have changed their focus from monitoring servers to monitoring service. There’s less importance placed at the highest levels on what servers are doing and more on how these devices are enabling our customers (students, faculty and staff) to do get their work done.

With unified network monitoring, we now know all that can be known about the networks. We started getting alerts of intermittent service problems. We could see whether back-end equipment was properly installed. As a result we’ve been able to identify areas of poor performance, clean up those issues and improve application performance.

The cost savings have been substantial. We’ve reduced our physical IT infrastructure to fewer than 100 pieces of gear worldwide (better than 97 percent improvement). We now use the cloud for redundancy and to scale server capacity as our needs change. And we’ve been able to greatly reduce the cost of troubleshooting hardware problems.

The immediately obvious benefit of network monitoring may be for federal agencies. Hybrid network monitoring can make it much easier for federal agencies to comply with regulations such as the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. Judging by the past two rounds of FITARA scoring, improved network monitoring seems to be a reasonable approach to better results overall.

The federal push to streamline IT assets is also a model for improved performance on the state and local level. New York and Ohio are following a federated model, with hardware and staffing resources being consolidated under state government authority. The trend toward consolidation is driven by goals of improved performance, better accountability and fiscal responsibility.

Personally, I can vouch for the effectiveness of consolidating infrastructure as a way to improve performance overall. It’s not easy, but as the saying goes, the longest journey begins with a single step. In this case, I firmly believe that the first step is having the right monitoring in place.

About the Author

Greg Smith is associate VP of enterprise operations at University of Maryland, University College.

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