Data center consolidation ahead of schedule

By Jared Serbu
Federal News Radio

The Obama administration announced new targets for federal agency data center consolidation Wednesday, saying the government will be able to close more data centers by year’s end than they initially predicted.

Administration officials told Congress in April they wanted to eliminate 100 centers by the end of this calendar year. The new target is 178 in 2011, and 81 have already closed, the White House said. By the end of 2012, officials predict 378 will be shut down. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) wants to close 40 percent of the government’s data centers by 2015.

OMB estimates the government will save $3 billion by the end of next year through the closures, but did not provide clear breakdowns of where those savings would come from in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. However, federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra said a huge amount of savings can be expected to come from the cost of electricity.

“Data centers consume more power than any other facility,” Kundra said. “A typical data center will consume as much as 200 times the amount of energy that standard office space does. If you look at what’s happened in the landscape of technology, with cell phones, iPads, PCs, laptops, we’ve seen as a result of Moore’s Law, the size of all those things has gone down. The same is true when you think about data center infrastructure. Yet, when it comes to the United States government, we’ve gone from 432 data centers in 1998 to more than 2,000 data centers this year.”

He said the average utilization rate in federal data centers stands at less than 27 percent in terms of computing power, and less than 40 percent in terms of storage space.

“That’s unacceptable in any time, but especially when we’re talking about a tough budgetary environment,” he said.” Kundra said each agency is currently drafting detailed plans that will drill down deeper into how much savings they’ll be able to achieve through the consolidation effort. OMB expects to have those plans posted online within the next month.

But the costs of operating data centers can be hard to precisely quantify. Even breaking down their individual energy bills isn’t always easy.

“In some data centers, there’s really good information on how much electricity they’re using,” Kundra said. “For example, in Rockville, Md., there’s a data center operated by HHS which had annual costs of about $1.2 million in electricity alone. That’s recurring costs every single year. In other cases, the electricity cost is rolled up in a lease with other things. Some of these have been around for decades, so there’s not a separate meter to measure the electricity use of the data center. But in the aggregate, we’re talking about electricity savings in the billions.”

The centers slated for closure are scattered across the country, though an OMB-created map shows the largest cluster is in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Another map from shows which specific department and agency the closing data centers belong to.

In terms of department-by-department closures, the Defense Department leads the way, with 113 closures planned by the end of next year. Among civilian agencies, the Department of Agriculture is on top, with 44 data centers on the list.

Measured in floor space, the largest data center being closed belongs to the Department of Homeland Security: a 195,000 square foot facility in Alabama (the size of three and a half football fields). The smallest are four Agriculture department data centers that are less than a thousand square feet each, but all in the same zip code.

But some of the closures aren’t as a result of consolidation, in the strictest sense of the word. Kundra said some of the infrastructure on chopping block just isn’t needed any more, as in cases where agencies have moved computing services to commercial cloud technologies.

“GSA and USDA are great examples of what’s happening in this space,” he said. “When they moved to Azure and Google Apps, they were able to actually decommission a lot of their legacy hardware. That’s hundreds of servers if you think about that infrastructure. You’re also seeing, for example, in HHS, 14,000 square feet of space was freed up when all of that hardware was decommissioned. We’re also seeing virtualization happening. As agencies are consolidating, they’re using technology to virtualize all of those servers and CPUs.”

But at least one member of Congress expressed some gentle concern Wednesday about whether the government will be able maintain its pace and achieve the goal of 800 data center closures by 2015.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the subcommittee on federal financial management, said he was happy to hear the results of the administration’s consolidation effort to date.

“But these first few rounds may be the low-hanging fruit, or perhaps the fruit already on the ground,” Carper said in a statement. “That’s why it’s so important that we keep up this momentum and push forward on this initiative.”

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