Nov 06 2008

Technology for Lean Times

When you add $500 billion, more or less, in federal deficits for 2009 to the $700 billion financial rescue package, you can bet on one thing: You’ll hear “do more with less” echoing throughout agencies.

Fiscal pain won’t be limited to the federal government. With housing values having fallen 30 percent nationally, on average, the bottom has dropped out of property tax revenues for state, county and municipal governments. And if your jurisdiction has been hit by the consumer spending slowdown, well then, there go sales tax revenues.

This doesn’t mean IT spending will come to a crashing halt. It shouldn’t, any more than your mission should stop. To the contrary, you can make a good case for investing in the coming year. That is, if you can show the investment will reduce costs in the long run and improve mission delivery.

And here is an investment that will pay off both ways if you can execute it wisely: virtualization. If you look at virtualization as an improvement for your data and computing centers, you can certainly make a good case for the technology. But if you look at virtualization as a strategy to enhance agency performance, you’ll have an even stronger argument for the investment in time and technology to virtualize your computing environment. How?

Raw Calculations

Let’s start with the purely cost-related payoffs from virtualization. You don’t have to go far to find examples: The Los Alamos National Laboratory cut the number of servers it needed by one-fourth, from 400 down to 300. It cut its electricity use to the tune of nearly 1 million kilowatt-hours annually, or $1.4 million, in part by closing three data centers.

When you figure in all of the investments and averted costs, LANL was able to recoup its investment in nine months — less than a full fiscal cycle. And that was in 2006. Given how much faster energy costs have risen than IT costs, you could probably achieve payback even sooner now from consolidating your server infrastructure.

All across the government, from the Navy to the House of Representatives, you can find examples of agencies saving big money in electricity and manpower by cutting the number of servers they need to support operations. The Defense Information Systems Agency is another example. It is working to retire as many of its 4,000 servers as possible by running up to 15 virtual environments on each remaining server.

As a bonus, agencies — or rather, their computing staffs — that can produce such benefits get to wear a cloak of green as the pressure mounts for government to reduce its carbon footprint


The ‘If’ Factor

There is another layer of benefit from virtualization that’s hard to measure but instantly apparent when the time comes — when disaster strikes.

I’m talking about fires, explosions, floods, earthquakes — the kinds of disasters that agency buildings have in fact experienced in the past few years. With a virtualized environment, you’d recover more quickly than if you were running IT the old way, with one operating system and a limited set of applications per server.

A virtualized server — one running multiple environments — is, in effect, always ready to take over for another machine. In a properly configured virtual data center, the backup servers are always in sync with the primary servers. In some cases, users may not even know the difference if a disaster hits one machine or one data center. This setup also makes it possible to do updates and maintenance during business hours.

And in the worst-case scenario, should everything go down, it is much faster to transfer disk images to fewer, virtualized machines.

Everywhere you turn these days, the performance of government agencies is being questioned. Call it the “Katrina Effect.” Responsible government managers need to plan for every contingency. When you make your case for investing in virtualization, don’t minimize the cost savings. But don’t forget that fast recovery of the data center means more-assured continuity of operations for the mission.


Photo: John Welzenbach