Long road, big payoff

Consolidation has become a byword among federal agencies as the Bush administration pushes agencies to pool their acquisition and management of information technology products. But where does an agency begin?

Perhaps the simplest way to save money is by consolidating and centralizing the management of application and data servers. If it is handled properly, server consolidation can be one of the easier tasks an IT manager will tackle. If it is done wrong, however, it can multiply the pain that causes organizations to consider consolidation in the first place.

Among agencies, an understanding of what server consolidation is and what advantages it can deliver has been expanding. However, that enlightenment has not been matched by equivalent knowledge about how to conduct a consolidation.

A few departments do have experience with server consolidation, including various parts of the military, such as the Pentagon, the Air Force and, of course, the Navy with its Navy/Marine Corps Intranet project.

But the situation at most agencies is probably closer to that of the Transportation Department, which is planning a major consolidation of servers at its Washington, D.C., headquarters ahead of a possible move to a new building in the next several years.

"We have just started down that road" of consolidation, said Kim Taylor, DOT's deputy chief information officer.

"We'll have a single infrastructure [at the new headquarters] to provide services, rather than the 11 different infrastructures we have now," Taylor said. "But we need to get our act together first in our current headquarters before we make the move."

In the long run, DOT officials expect to make better use of their management resources by consolidating and centralizing servers. They also expect to improve security by having one infrastructure instead of 11.

Industry experts say the biggest challenges involved with consolidation are likely to be cultural rather than technical. This is a hurdle Taylor anticipates.

"The consolidation process always starts with an interview of the various business personnel in the organization," said Al Rasteiro, global service line executive for midrange services at EDS. "You need the buy-in from the people in the business components because each will have its own rationale for consolidation, its own version of the return-on-investment of consolidation and so on."

Another essential preliminary step is assessing what kinds of services, such as software applications and computing resources, are being delivered to particular audiences, said Karl Freund, vice president of marketing for IBM Corp.'s pSeries servers. Then, you can determine whether a straightforward physical consolidation of servers is in order or if a more complicated consolidation of servers and application environments is warranted. The more complicated scenario is suited to large organizations with many departments and workflows. In that situation, the consolidation must be designed to account for different usage levels of applications, servers and bandwidth.

The decision also depends on the organization's objectives, Freund said. If an agency is satisfied with its business processes and the IT resources that support them, then it can simply consolidate onto a single platform such as a blade server and build future capacity by plugging in processor blades as needed.

The four kinds of consolidations, according to Freund and other industry experts, are:

n Centralization. This relocates distributed servers into a single location and is probably the easiest consolidation to do. It saves money by reducing infrastructure and management costs.

n Physical consolidation. This is when about 20 servers that all ran one or a few applications are replaced with a single server. This reduces cooling and electricity costs, saves floor space, and taps the savings mentioned above.

n Data integration. Here, data that used to reside on separate servers each with their own disk storage is pooled in a centralized storage resource that is accessible to all of the servers.

n Rationalized consolidation. This occurs when a more complex mix of applications running on multiple servers reduces the number of servers needed via server partitioning and workload management. This can actually decrease the environment's complexity, cut application costs by eliminating redundant software licenses and provide a better platform for integrating business processes.

Knowing What's Enough

In its work with customers evaluating consolidation, Dell Computer Corp. has yet to find a case in which an organization could reap no benefits from a potential consolidation, said Tom Buchsbaum, vice president of the company's federal systems unit.

However, he warned, although each level of consolidation offers benefits, there's also the danger that the project can be taken too far.

"Overconsolidating can create an over-dependence on bandwidth, or single points of failure that could bring the whole network down," Buchsbaum said.

Server consolidation is not yet a mature concept, said Josh Weiss, president and chief executive officer of Nauticus Networks Inc., and government agencies still have a long way to go to understand the basics of their own infrastructures that could benefit from consolidation.

"A year ago, people didn't know these kinds of [consolidation solutions] were available," said Throop Wilder, Crossbeam Systems Inc.'s vice president of marketing. "But now they do, and while they may not have the funds for other things, they do have dollars to spend on consolidation."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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Consolidation tips

Thinking of beginning a server consolidation program? Keep these tips in mind.

* Do an initial needs assessment. There are different levels of consolidation to fit different scenarios. Many vendors have established procedures that provide detailed assessments. Dell Computer Corp. even has an online return-on-investment calculator that agencies can use to get a quick idea of what benefits consolidation can offer.

* Make a detailed implementation plan. With such a plan, the consolidation will usually be relatively simple. Depending on the technical complexity, the consolidation can take anywhere from half a day to a week.

* Make sure there is buy-in at all levels. Consolidating servers will likely eliminate some of the fiefdoms that arose when there were lots of separate servers, and that can ruffle some feathers. Good and early communication of consolidation plans to all those affected will prevent frustrating turf battles later.

* Don't take it too far. With server consolidation, shrinking the number of servers by X doesn't mean that reducing by 2X is twice as good. Beyond a certain point, such issues as available bandwidth, processing bottlenecks and the creation of single points of failure in the network will jeopardize benefits.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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