Oversight

Most agencies 'not planning' to meet OMB data center goals, GAO says

Shutterstock image: data center lights and hardware. 

The Government Accountability Office went looking for "notable optimization successes" in its most recent update on how federal agencies were faring in meeting a White House-led initiative to consolidate and optimize use of government data centers.

They didn't find much to brag about.

Of the 24 participating agencies, 22 reported only "limited" progress towards Data Center Optimization Initiative goals, just one year before the Federal Information Technology and Acquisitions Reform Act is set to expire in 2018. The remaining two did not have agency-owned data centers to report on. Furthermore, of the 22 agencies that did report progress, just five said they expected to meet metrics laid out by the Office of Management and Budget before the FITARA provisions expire.

As a result, GAO officials recommended that Congress extend the law, or at least the parts related to data center consolidation and optimization.

OMB laid out five metrics for agencies to measure success: server utilization, energy metering, effective power usage, facility utilization and virtualization. In all five categories, the vast majority of participating agencies failed to meet or exceed the necessary targets. Only the Social Security Administration and Environmental Protection Agency managed to meet expectations for at least three of the five metrics.

Documentation has been spotty too. The report notes that none of the 24 agencies reviewed fully documented their optimization plans, despite existing federal standards that strongly encourage them to do so. If current conditions persist, GAO predicts that the $2.7 billion in savings the federal government expected to see from closing down more than half of its remaining 9,000 data centers "may not be achievable."

On Sept. 1, the office of Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), one of FITARA's sponsors, told FCW there "are agencies who are simply not doing the planning and work required under FITARA and OMB." In a statement released Sept. 7, he again urged Congress to pass an extension for the law.

"These findings confirm why it is so important Congress pass the FITARA Enhancement Act," said Connolly. "We cannot allow agencies to run out the clock on data center optimization goals and potentially leave billions of dollars in savings that can be reinvested in IT modernization."

There has been some progress. A report put out by OMB in August found that the federal government has collectively closed about 1,900 data centers since 2010 and saved $1 billion. However, those numbers are a far cry from the $5 billion the office estimated in potential savings from data center consolidation and optimization in 2010, or the approximately 6,400 data center closures overall it targeted by the end of 2018.

Part of the problem is that the government has historically had trouble keeping count of just how many data centers it actually operates. A lack of centralized, consistent standards for identifying and counting data centers at each agency has led to a series of upward revisions over the years, from just over 3,000 in 2010 to more than 10,000 in 2015. As the total number of known centers have continued to rise, so too have the corresponding closure targets.

The GAO report lays some of the blame for the sluggish pace on "decentralized organizational structures along with "competing priorities for resources." In responding to the report, agencies listed a multitude of operational, technical and financial challenges. For example, 10 agencies reported struggles obtaining dedicated funding for optimization efforts, while eight reported the need for "significant" upfront costs to purchase the necessary monitoring tools to measure OMB metrics.

An Aug. 15 letter from GAO officials to Congress contained in the report notes that growing demand for modernized systems over the past decade "has led to a dramatic rise in the number of federal data centers and a corresponding increase in operational costs."

Mark Forman, global head of public sector at Unisys, said the governmentwide push for IT modernization in recent years may, in some sense, be conflicting with the original money-saving goals that kicked off the consolidation and optimization effort in the first place.

"If I get rid of an old system through data center consolidation and start moving towards a new technology and modernize for the digital economy, then I clearly want to do that. But I may not get the cost savings," Forman, who was the first person to serve in the federal CIO role, said. "On the other hand, if I did it for cost savings, but now it's no longer relevant to the digital economy, then that was a bad decision [from a modernization perspective]."

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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