As government CIOs begin consolidating their agency data centers, they should leave the forklift in park.That was the message senior officials in the government IT sphere delivered in a panel discussion on how to maximize return on investment through overhauling the sprawling federal data center apparatus \u2014 which numbers well into the thousands of facilities.Its not enough simply to pack up one set of servers and reshelf them in another location. Government IT leaders stress that any data center overhaul cannot simply be an IT-driven initiative that amounts to a check-box exercise. The process should entail a considered engagement with the business lines of the agency, they say."Who are all the different stakeholders? Obviously the business system owners, those [who] have systems and applications residing in the data center," says Darren Ash, acting CIO at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.As Ash puts it, this was always intended to be more than a "forklift" move of servers to a new data center. It presents opportunities to think differently about hosting and housing, as well as the type of equipment to use.Data Center Consolidation Tough When Budgets Drop But Requirements Don'tThe press for consolidating data centers within federal agencies is hardly a grass-roots phenomenon but, rather, comes in response to the Office of Management and Budget's data center consolidation initiative.That directive, promulgated by the White House in 2010, instructed agencies to take an inventory of their data center assets and develop a plan for shrinking that footprint and transitioning to more efficient technologies such as cloud computing and virtualization.In the time since, OMB's tally of the total number of data centers the federal government maintains has risen sharply, with estimates now hovering around 7,000. OMB has attributed the increase in part to a shift in the way the government defines a data center \u2014 but some critics in Congress have chastised agencies for failing to accurately account for their IT assets and moving too slowly on their consolidation initiatives.\n\n[ Audit: U.S. Agencies Can't Track Savings From Data Center Closings ]\n[ More: Federal IT Efforts Slowed by Weak CIO Roles, Uneven Reporting ]The potential to cut costs while improving efficiency is at the heart of the federal data center consolidation initiative. Scaling down the data center footprint can trim expenses on a variety of fronts, including energy usage, the capital costs of maintaining physical facilities and the labor force needed to staff those sites.That initiative takes on an added urgency at a time when federal agencies are operating under constrained budgets while dealing with a rising demand for services."We have to figure out how to do more with less, right? The government has less money overall, but the requirements aren't shrinking," says Chris Howard, vice president of federal sales with the virtualization provider Nutanix. "The requirements are growing every day, so how do we reduce the overall footprint but still maintain the support and effectiveness of what we're delivering as a mission-critical application?"Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative Part of Larger IT EffortsHowever, costs savings won't materialize simply by shuttering individual data centers if an agency isn't working under a strategic plan to achieve targeted efficiencies through the scale-down. Howard recalls one government agency that Nutanix worked with that had been frustrated in its own consolidation efforts. That agency, Howard says, had begun with hundreds of data centers, and after closing 49 of them, found that it "didn't save a penny.""There's got to be more than just saying, 'OK, that location can be shut down, let's move it from here to here,'" he says. "You have to have a good plan \u2014 and without a good plan, it's just going to be a move from one bad place to another."In that context, Howard argued that CIOs should approach their data center efforts as a vehicle to support other business-driven IT initiatives, of which the government has many. Along with OMB's consolidation directive, the White House has also instructed CIOs to prioritize cloud computing systems, expand the use of mobile technologies within their agencies and publish more government data sets in an open, machine-readable format, among other areas of focus.\n\n[ Survey: Government Networks Unprepared for Cloud, Big Data Transitions ]\n[ Analysis: Is the Federal Government Ready to Embrace the Cloud? ]Howard describes these initiatives as "pretty tightly knit," adding, "Obviously those are new and innovative approaches to do business differently than you've done it in the past.""I don't see them as the siloes of activities. Once you decide to transform your data center, it's not just shrinking [your] footprint. That's one aspect of it, but there's efficiencies that can be had across the board," Howard says, ranging from how an agency delivers and consumers applications to how extensively it virtualizes to whether it uses public or private cloud services. "These are all thoughts that go into your overall transformation agenda. If they're not tightly coupled together then you're probably going to miss out on a tremendous amount of efficiencies."Or, as Ash puts it, "We don't do IT for IT's sake. We do it for the mission."Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.