IT Modernization

Why tracking data centers is so hard

astonished man in data center 

The Office of Management and Budget recently reported that the government has closed about 1,900 data centers since the launch of the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative in 2010, saving almost $1 billion. It also lists the remaining data center inventory at 9,000 and reiterates the goal of the set out by the Data Center Optimization Initiative to cut that number in half and save an additional $2.7 billion by the end of fiscal year 2018.

These latest figures speak to a problem that has plagued the federal government for years: its seeming inability to accurately catalog and track its own data center inventory across all federal agencies. In 2011, then Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel estimated the government owned a total of 3,133 data centers. By 2013 that number had doubled to 6,000 and by 2015, OMB and the Government Accountability Office revised that estimate further upwards to more than 10,000.

The drive to close, consolidate and optimize data centers has generally been seen as a necessary precursor to the larger goal of IT modernization, allowing agencies to retire their many ancient and archaic legacy IT systems and architecture while better taking advantage of cloud-based services. A growing number of IT leaders in government have begun to openly signal their desire to make a clean break from agency-owned data centers in the near future. On Aug. 30, the White House released its first draft for IT modernization, laying out how future cloud adoption and data center consolidation and optimization are intimately connected.

Cloud, the report states, "can entirely replace the need for a traditional on premise data center. Agencies can often move existing services from legacy on premise data centers to cloud infrastructure with some software modifications."

At the heart of the problem is the question: What exactly is a data center? Dan Chenok, executive director for the IBM Center for the Business of Government and former senior OMB official, said different agencies have different definitions for what constitutes a data center. Adding to the confusion was a change in requirements from OMB that allowed agencies to count data centers under 500 square feet, opening up a flood of counting "server closets" that have ballooned the numbers.

"A data center could be inside your PC," Chenok said. "I think it's to some extent a definitional challenge that will continually evolve as the hardware element of data centers evolve."

To his point, the IT dashboard currently lists 2,897 data center closures to date across all federal agencies. Approximately 2,180 of those closures -- or 75 percent -- have seemingly taken place within a single agency: the Department of Agriculture. Chenok said that the USDA has offices in every county in the country and suspects that many of those "data centers" are small enough to fit inside a closet. 

Mark Forman, global head of public sector at Unisys and former e-government director under the George W. Bush administration, said more recent legislation such as the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act have attempted to standardize and codify agency practices around counting data centers.

Tony Scott, federal CIO under the Obama administration, said in 2016 departments and agencies were given updated guidelines based off the Uptime Institute's "tier classification system" to better define the scope of their data center inventories.

"It will take some time for these definitions to sink in, and as a result, I think you'll see some shakiness in the numbers for a while," said Scott in an email to FCW. "Ultimately, the pressure on costs and modernization will drive the number down anyhow."

FITARA co-sponsor Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told FCW that "there are agencies who are simply not doing the planning and work required under FITARA and OMB guidance to consolidate or close their data centers."

Forman said the numbers around data center ownership and closures are less important than how those closures facilitate the larger goal of IT modernization. A more important but less tangible question is how these efforts are affecting the government's underlying software systems and the way mission offices coordinate with other partners.

"Are we consolidating data centers and simplifying the architecture of government IT and information? Are we better aligning the IT needs of agencies and how they relate to their partners?" Forman asked.

More legislative guidance on this issue may be in the offing. Connolly is backing an extension of the data center provisions of FITARA in the FITARA Extension Act "to require agencies that have not yet met their established goals to continue the planning and work needed in this area."

"Congress needs to let [agencies] know that they are not going to be able to run out the clock. We are potentially leaving money on the table when it comes to data center consolidation if we allow FITARA's data center reporting and planning requirements to expire in 2018," Connolly said.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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