Budget cuts threaten data center consolidation

The government is making progress on its quest to shut down redundant data centers, but several factors endanger chances of meeting its target date.

Although the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative promises to save the government billions of dollars in the long run, short-term problems that include possible budget cuts and inadequate information on agency operations could get in the way of meeting the goal to shut down or consolidate 1,186 data centers by 2015.

Gaps in equipment inventories and cost estimates, coupled with poor planning on how to increase efficiency, are making it challenging for agencies to comply with that deadline, said David Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office.

Despite incomplete inventories, 24 agencies identified nearly 2,900 data centers and estimated a savings of $2.4 billion from the closure of 1,186 of them, as detailed in a report GAO published in July.

However, the spending needed to implement the initiative threatens to limit the potential savings, Powner said. Completing data center inventories, gauging energy use and paying for consolidation are the biggest challenges for agencies, according to GAO.

“In terms of strategies, it all starts with knowing what you have, so complete inventories are essential for success,” Powner said. “Having comprehensive cost estimates and detailed schedules are the key components of data center consolidation plans so that cost savings over [specified] periods of time are clearly known.”

The Office of Management and Budget expects agencies to use any savings achieved by increased efficiency to pay for the costs related to consolidation. Those savings will presumably come from reduced spending on real estate, network infrastructure and energy.

The number of data centers keeps shifting as agencies survey their infrastructure and OMB changes what should be counted. Agencies identified 2,900 data centers in September 2011, a figure that is sharply higher than the estimate from OMB of 2,100 centers when FDCCI launched in 2010.

In October 2011, however, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel announced that a data center was any room that is “used for the processing and storing of data,” a much broader definition than the 500-square-foot minimum set by VanRoekel’s predecessor, Vivek Kundra. In December 2011, OMB used that guideline to report that there were 3,133 federal data centers.

Agencies are supposed to file data center inventories on a regular basis, followed by updated consolidation plans and quarterly progress reports. But the reporting effort has fallen short.

“OMB could ensure that future consolidation plans are up to their detailed standards by reviewing them, as GAO did,” Powner said.

The Commerce Department was the only agency in GAO’s survey that had submitted a complete data center consolidation plan. Prioritizing infrastructure according to capacity, frequency of use and outdated equipment are key factors for practical spending on FDCCI, said Commerce CIO Simon Szykman.

The only agencies to submit complete data center inventories were the Social Security Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Science Foundation. Those agencies had an easier time of it because SSA has only two data centers and NSF has only one, while HUD has outsourced its IT infrastructure to Hewlett-Packard and Lockheed Martin.

Outsourcing “works for us,” said HUD Deputy CIO Mike Milazzo. “For HUD, it was the right thing to do at that time.” 

The consolidation initiative has had some success. By August, federal agencies had closed 318 data centers since the initiative’s launch. FDCCI’s current goal is to close another 196 center by the end of fiscal 2013 and the remainder by the end of fiscal 2015.

The next cost-saving step for agencies is to move to virtualization and cloud services. To ensure that users will have quick, secure access to their files, whether they are stored in a cloud environment or at a shared data center, Milazzo said HUD created a test environment to reassure customers of performance standards.

“When we moved data and infrastructure, we made sure there was a backup plan, and we talked to the customers and the engineers all throughout the process so there would be no surprises at the end,” Milazzo said.

The next update from agencies to the FDCCI on closure-and-consolidation progress is due Oct. 26, with those results slated for public release on Nov. 9.

Tom Risen is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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