Jim Williams (right) is commissioner of the GSA Federal Acquisition Service, and John Johnson is assistant commissioner of the agency's Office of Integrated Technology Services.
Dec 31 2009

The Art of the Possible

Right now, agencies own and operate hundreds, if not thousands, of data centers. Recognizing the inherent inefficiency in running so many facilities, most agencies have begun consolidating within their organizations.

But what if we could cut that number to just two or three data centers governmentwide? And what if those data centers were run not by a single government entity but by a public-private partnership that enabled agencies to do more with less, using a shared-services model that provided unprecedented economies of scale and the greatest possible innovation, security and reliability?

Narrowing a largely unknown number of federal data centers down to a limited few seems daunting, to be sure, but there are plenty of reasons — financial, operational and environmental — to put the idea out there as a goal and begin working toward it.

We view federal data center consolidation efforts as part of a re­sponsibility that the General Services Administration is helping shoulder, through acquisition assistance and existing relationships with the private sector.

Cause and Effect

There are a number of trends that make the push for data center consolidation imperative. For one, the government anticipates a period of flat or nearly flat budgets. Also, the need for secure access to data and applications, as well as disaster-recovery and continuity-of-operations capabilities, is critical, and fewer data centers would mean less exposure and therefore less potential for breaches and downtime.

Standardization and data sharing are gaining acceptance, thanks in part to the Homeland Security Department’s success in interagency coordination and communication, as well as the Office of Management and Budget’s Lines of Business initiatives for accounting, financial management, human resources and applications. Data centers are a natural fit for the infrastructure component of the LOB initiatives.

As new regulations governing legal discovery and the storage of e-mail and other documents take hold, the amount of digital information that agencies have to contend with — and demand for data center operations — will continue to grow.

Together, these trends are creating the perfect storm, but also providing an opportunity to apply real innovation to solving an old problem. Government IT has a chance to truly consider the art of the possible, in which agencies could perform consolidation not just within their own four walls but across agency boundaries to address common needs, common challenges and common expenses.

Whether we’ll ever get to just a few data centers can’t be known at this point. But in the drive for greater efficiency, resiliency, security and performance, we need to at least hold that goal in mind. To do so will provide us with the best opportunity to be as effective and as efficient as possible in achieving our mission.

Photo: James Kegley