Viewing the data center as the focal point of an ambitious set of technology initiatives, federal CIOs are working aggressively to slash server counts and consolidate facilities as they position their agencies to adopt cloud applications, roll out mobile technologies and support big data projects.
The actual count of federal data centers is ambiguous, in part because efforts to take inventory of agencies' far-flung assets remain a work in progress. Additionally, in agencies large and small, the tally might be slightly inflated based on some of the makeshift set-ups that were designated as data centers, suggests André Mendes, director of global operations at the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
"When I came on board we had 11 data centers. Some of them really shouldn't have been called that, but they were," Mendes said during a panel discussion this week. "Trust me: The environment was a little bit chaotic. If a closet had servers in it, we called it a data center. Those no longer exist."
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Today, Mendes' agency is down to three data centers – a reduction achieved through the four-pronged approach of consolidation, virtualization, colocation and cloud computing.
At present, Mendes estimates that around 90 percent of his agency's applications run in a virtualized environment. Those that aren't are CPU-intensive operations like the conversions of the video the Broadcasting Board produces from one format to another.
Mendes says the board has a significant number of servers dedicated exclusively to compressing and converting video streams. Virtualization "just doesn't make sense" for those applications, he says – "but for everything else, it was a no-brainer."
Data Center Consolidation Requires Strategic, Cultural Shift
Of course, the federal executives who participate in these kinds of discussions are typically those whose agencies are well along in their technology transition.
The government-wide data center consolidation initiative, unveiled in 2010, aims to dramatically reduce the amount of federal real estate dedicated to housing servers, slash energy consumption and achieve significant cost savings through reductions in hardware, software and operating expenses.
From the standpoint of vendors contracting with government agencies to help realize those goals, progress has been uneven. "It's all over the map," says Darren House, director of solutions management with Avnet Government Solutions. "In some places they're really doing well, in some places they're still struggling."
House cites a number of obstacles that CIOs have encountered in their efforts to scale down data centers, including tight budgets, contractual challenges and cultural resistance. Those issues are amplified in environments dominated by legacy IT systems, he says.
"It's hard for other agencies to get there, especially the agencies that have a legacy infrastructure where they have to figure out how to do the Tetris game of moving pieces around to be able to get to that point, and that legacy issue is a huge barrier," he says.
In a multi-layered bureaucracy such as the typical federal agency, there's also the practical challenge of disseminating the CIO's vision for transforming the data center and the various IT operations down through the ranks, House notes.
"The CIOs seem to have a very good strategy – a high-level strategy – of how to get to the objectives they're trying to achieve," he says. "But then how is that moved down the organization, down to the data center operators and data center managers?"
On the cultural side, some CIOs are warming to a shared services model, where one agency with a particular area expertise becomes a service provider to other agencies, further alleviating the data center burden. That effort, which runs counter to a long history of each agency going it alone in IT, seeks to avoid duplicative IT efforts by developing and sharing reusable applications and systems.
"We all can't be really good at everything," says Kimberly Hancher, CIO at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Within her agency, Hancher looks at litigation support software as a perfect candidate for the shared-service model.
"It's a very specialized set of software services, and I'd rather not build it and host it and figure it out myself," Hancher says. "I'd love to be a customer for that kind of shared services."