How to relieve the pressure of data center consolidation

Server virtualization, blade servers and other tools of the consolidation trade can rescue IT administrators charged with trimming the tally of government data centers

Within well-fortified and expensively maintained IT facilities throughout government, the Un-Occupy Data Centers movement is unfolding, with data center optimization leading the charge to improve IT efficiency and cut cost.

This movement mixes server and storage virtualization, blade servers, automation tools, and management initiatives to squeeze as much efficiency out of data centers as possible. Data center optimization produces the most processing power for the fewest dollars, kilowatts, square footage and staff time. And according to a fall 2011 survey of 321 government IT decision-makers by the 1105 Government Information Group, data center optimization is receiving widespread attention and aggressive adoption at federal, state and local government agencies.

Two closely related concerns are driving data center optimization.

1. Hardware utilization rates are a major concern of government IT managers. Nearly nine out of 10 survey respondents said the capacity utilization of their servers, storage devices and other hardware was a concern.
2. Amid widespread pressure to consolidate data centers, optimization combines tactics that can successfully reduce the number of IT facilities throughout government.


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Data center optimization usually begins with server optimization, which aims to achieve the more efficient use of server hardware through server virtualization and deployment of ultra-efficient blade servers. Server virtualization often is combined with storage virtualization, sometimes in conjunction with storage technologies, such as deduplication and tiering, and general data center improvements, such as reducing power and cooling requirements.

“Server virtualization is the first area organizations think about when looking at data center optimization, but they really need to understand why they want to virtualize,” says Judith Hurwitz, president and CEO of IT consulting and analysis firm Hurwitz and Associates, based in Needham, Mass.

Government agencies are likely to turn first to server virtualization due to the expectation that it will deliver measureable results fast. There are a number of reasons why organizations adopt virtualization. The primary one is server consolidation. Through server virtualization, the organization can run multiple applications, each on a virtual server within a single physical server. This reduces the number of physical devices on the data center floor and boosts physical server utilization.

Survey respondents expect their server utilization rate to reach 70 percent or more within two years, a huge jump from historic levels or even recent performance.

Historically, a 20 percent server capacity utilization rate was expected in a large data center with scores or hundreds of servers, according to research firm Gartner. Server utilization often barely rose higher than 10 percent when each server ran a single application. Without virtualization, organizations might hit about 40 percent utilization, as indicated by survey respondent data. By comparison, mainframe IT shops generally achieve 90 percent utilization or more. Survey respondents involved in server virtualization reported that their current utilization rates were more than 50 percent, though the server utilization rate varies somewhat by the level of virtualization adoption.


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Server virtualization has been widely embraced by government agencies, especially large ones. About eight out of 10 agencies of all types — ranging from the Defense Department and federal civilian agencies to local and state governments — had adopted server virtualization or were actively investigating it, according to survey respondents.  

An example of the improvement in server capacity utilization due to virtualization-enabled data center consolidation already occurred at the Army's data centers, said Donald Adcock, executive director of the Army IT Agency. He reported in September 2011 that the agency increased server virtualization capacity by 30 percent as part of a data center consolidation and optimization effort.

Other server virtualization drivers

Other reasons for the interest in server virtualization include lower hardware costs, a smaller physical footprint and more centralized control. The advantage of having fewer servers to monitor is especially important when considering data and system security and defending from virus and malware attacks. In addition, server virtualization reduces a data center's energy and cooling costs, lowers real estate spending, and can reduce IT staff costs. For more information about the expected and proven benefits of virtualization, please read the companion article in this package, "Where saving the planet and saving money intersect"

“Organizations have accumulated systems and servers without keeping to a plan," says David Kelly, president of IT market research and analysis firm Upside Research, based in Newton, Mass. "As a result, they experience substantial increase in servers that is difficult and costly to manage. Server virtualization is one way to bring such server sprawl under control.”

Server virtualization reduced the number of physical servers in the organizations responding to the 1105 Government Information Group survey, as one would expect, but only modestly. New system deployments offset some of the benefits of consolidation. The future mix of server types reflects another key part of data center optimization: the increased deployment of blade servers. The proportion of blade servers in government data centers will increase from 32 percent to 41 percent, survey respondents predict.

Only the first step

The adoption of blade servers represents an important data center optimization strategy. Blades are highly compressed servers based on a modular design intended to minimize server physical space and lower energy consumption via shared power supplies, fans and input/output connectors. They can be configured in a variety of ways — in effect, they can be optimized for specific tasks, such as data analysis or file serving. A blade cabinet or enclosure holds multiple blade servers while providing power, cooling, networking, various interconnects and management capabilities in a much smaller space than would be occupied by traditional servers. Rack mount or rack unit servers are the conventional method, consisting of a main motherboard and a variety of daughterboards placed in a standard system rack.

For most organizations, virtualizing servers is only the first step in a more comprehensive data center optimization strategy. Storage virtualization is typically the next step. For more information on the trends in storage virtualization, please read "Storage virtualization tames the data beast" in this report.

However, not every government agency is jumping on the server virtualization bandwagon. Satisfaction with existing server installations and security concerns are the two reasons most often cited by the handful of survey respondents who reported a lack of interest in pursuing a server virtualization solution.

Roughly one in 10 survey respondents not using virtualization indicated that they didn't want to rock the boat and disrupt an existing system that was operating well. Other virtualization concerns cited were the inability of virtualized servers to support in-house applications (7 percent), inadequately trained staff (5 percent) and cost (2 percent).

Data center optimization survey methodology

Beginning in September 2011, an independent survey and research organization commissioned by the 1105 Government Information Group sent an e-mail questionnaire to readers of the group's various publications and websites, including Federal Computer Week, Government Computer News, Washington Technology, Federal Daily and Defense Systems. The responses were filtered to include only officials of government agencies who were involved in IT decisions, such as data center management. In addition, each respondent had to be from a government agency that operates at least one data center.

Of the 321 validated responses, roughly a third were from civilian agencies of the U.S. government. Another third were from various defense-related agencies, and the last third were from state or local government agencies.

Almost six in 10 respondents identified themselves as technical decision-makers. They are engineers, technicians, or project or program managers. The remainder are agency executives or operational managers.

About this Report

This report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors arenot guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please email us at [email protected].