Richard T. Eva likes to say that the stars aligned just right for the data center that's home to the bulk of the Army's acquisition data and processing — creating a unique opportunity to reinvent the facility. The result? A data center that's highly available, virtualization-centric and poised for the future.
The rebirth began six years ago when Eva became project director for acquisition, logistics and technology systems and services (PD-ALTESS). Looking back, there really were no options for the ALTESS facility, which lies a few hours' drive south of the Pentagon in rural Virginia. "We had to change or die," Eva says.
In 2005, the center was home to a hodgepodge of disparate systems paid for by Army program managers, who often had inherited the systems and maintained needed services by repeatedly investing in hardware refreshments. The ALTESS staff managed the data center mostly as a collocation site for eight customer organizations within the Army.
That's when, according to Eva, five stars aligned:
- Much of the center's workforce was at retirement age, which created vacancies for new hires.
- Young professionals with strong technology skills entered the workforce.
- Eva led multiple reorganizations to create new and agile teams. ("Success with any technology effort comes down to two things: people and processes," he says.)
- Numerous systems reached their end of life and so became candidates for consolidation and virtualization.
- Opportunities emerged to re-engineer internal processes, allowing ALTESS to adopt the IT Infrastructure Library management approach. ("I was adamant," Eva says. "Don't tell me, 'That's the way it's done.' ")
Today, ALTESS, which falls under the aegis of the Army's Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems, serves 57 customers and nearly all of the acquisition processing needs of PEO-EIS' 11 units. The data center has virtualized more than half of its 900 servers and standardized the platforms for 80 percent of them.
"We go chassis — blades and virtual environments — mainly Sun, but we're agnostic," Eva says.
As the center has moved heavily to blades, it has also brought in HP devices, adds IT Specialist Joe Elliott, ALTESS' virtualization guru. Currently, HP Proliant BL685 blades host environments for server virtualization. Each chassis provides upward of 384 available CPU cores and 1.75 terabytes of RAM.
Although the consolidation and standardization of systems so far is promising, Eva predicts that what's to come through the consolidation of data will offer a huge advantage and long-term savings for the Army. "We're starting to see functional synergy begin to happen," he says.
Bringing Down the Age Curve
ALTESS experienced the baby boomer brain-drain that for the past decade has been more rumor than reality in government IT.
When Eva became PD-ALTESS, he was one of the younger people on the staff at 48 years old. Six years later, he's nearly the oldest, following the wave of retirements. He enjoys the enthusiasm for technology that he sees in today's IT professionals.
"Our young employees love the technology; they're enjoying themselves; and they're giving and learning," Eva says.
The average age of an employee at ALTESS is 37 years old. That's about a decade younger than the average for federal IT workers generally, according to Office of Personnel Management statistics.
The opportunities and on-the-job training are a major appeal, says Charles Smith, a 27-year-old technical writer and editor. "This isn't a very large facility, but there are so many things going on at once," he says.
Smith, like 32 other current members of the staff, joined the ALTESS team directly out of college — actually, while still in college.
Situated near Radford University and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, ALTESS has close ties to both institutions and regularly hires technology and engineering students after recruiting them through its Student Career Experience Program. These SCEP participants spend two years working at ALTESS while they pursue their studies.
"SCEP has been huge for us," says Janet P. Fisher, chief of enterprise services at the facility. "We have converted almost all our SCEP students into full-time employees." Most graduating SCEP participants remain at ALTESS or move on to other federal jobs.
World-Class VM Facility
As the staff at ALTESS grew younger, the government as a whole also began facing tighter IT budgets than it had in previous years. "There's a direct relationship between how much money you don't have and how much you want to virtualize," Eva says.
To consistently invest in the infrastructure and upgrade its systems, ALTESS over the past six years has repurposed funding available from unused appropriations — something it had not done previously. Plus, as the data center's Army customers have increasingly bought into the virtualized services offered by what is essentially an ALTESS private cloud, they have become partners in the facility, Eva says. When some of its biggest customers have reaped a return on investment, they have invested savings back into the facility.
"A key issue has been to get our senior leaders and users to understand how much of a silver bullet virtualization is for technology," Eva says. When it comes to practicality, ROI, processing capability and ease of management, there's nothing like virtualization, he says.
What's more, when paired with standardization, the savings increase, says Scott Friend, chief of enterprise systems at ALTESS. The management burdens and expenses decrease in direct proportion to the reduced complexity of the systems environment, he says. "Put simply, it's a lot easier to manage 100 of the same thing than 100 different things."
Toward that end, the center has doggedly pursued standardization and virtualization, creating a private cloud environment and actively educating users about why they should convert their systems to the ALTESS virtual environment.
"A lot of it is showing them how much a stand-alone system costs now and how much it would cost if we virtualized it," says Debbie Jenkins, service level management branch chief at ALTESS.
Additionally, "a lot of customers are happy to get rid of the day-to-day management of the infrastructure," Elliott says.
The VMware environment — 85 blade servers hosting 650 virtual machines — is served by virtualized storage hosted on a NetApp storage area network with 750 raw terabytes of capacity.
To ensure high availability, the facility has two fully redundant links into the data center, says Network Engineer Grant Simms. Transactions must clear a Juniper Networks gateway, enter a demilitarized zone that makes use of F5 Networks load-balancing appliances and then pass through internal Juniper firewalls.
By taking advantage of link aggregation within its blade infrastructure, each of the data center's blade chassis can support up to 40-gigabit-per-second combined throughput. To ensure secure multitenancy, currently each customer has its own set of virtual LANs within the facility, Elliott says. Ultimately, the goal is to move to more advanced virtual switches and virtual firewalls.
Whatever's on the technology frontier at ALTESS, the beauty of the current environment is that "there's no wasted functionality, and we can easily scale up as needed," says IT Specialist Ben Hiltonsmith. "We only build to capacity; we grow as our customers grow."
The fee models that ALTESS creates are competitive, he says, because the facility can map out each customer all the way through the infrastructure and create pricing based on actual processing load data.
Driven by a Service Mentality
Process improvements have been equally critical to ALTESS' success as a competitive provider, Jenkins says.
That's why ALTESS has adopted the IT Infrastructure Library, which Eva called more practical and hands-on than most other management and re-engineering philosophies. "Every staff member takes ITIL training, and it's integrated into all our business processes."
Why? Because when it comes to convincing users to consolidate and virtualize systems, it's not enough to point out financial benefits, Jenkins says. After all, Eva adds, anyone can deploy the technology; "it's how you use it and who's doing it."
If users are asked to literally give up their equipment, then the data center team needs to foster trust, Eva points out — "trust that we're going to do the right thing for their systems."
ALTESS provides full-lifecycle systems, services, 24x7 support and security for more than 50 acquisition information systems, 77 applications and 2.1 million users worldwide.
That's chiefly the job of service-level managers. One is assigned to every customer. "They are the voice of the customers at ALTESS," Fisher says. "They are the glue that holds everything together."
This type of worker really doesn't exist, Eva adds. "There's no federal job description. And it took a while to grow that kind of person here." Perhaps most important, he says, "we now know what to interview for and what to look for."
ALTESS has had to identify people with the right personal service traits. Technology knowledge helps, but that can be learned, Fisher says.
From the Inside Out
Admittedly, it would be easy for the uninitiated to view ALTESS as just another Army data center, but Eva and his team beg to differ.
"We serve a niche market — acquisition processing and support — but our real work is in helping our customers reinvent their environments," he says. "That's what we really do: people, process and then technology."