Mark Benjapathmongkol leads an effort that has virtualized 62 percent of the State Department’s servers as part of an ongoing data consolidation effort.

Feb 17 2015
Data Center

Agencies Continue Data Center Consolidation Efforts

Federal agencies consider end-to-end virtualization to optimize and consolidate their IT infrastructure.

Despite making good progress in consolidating its data centers and virtualizing servers, the State Department’s IT leaders are striving to do even better.

In recent years, the department eliminated 12 domestic data centers, mostly small server rooms within several scattered buildings, and consolidated them into four core data centers. In doing so, the IT staff deployed an Infrastructure as a Service private cloud and virtualized 62 percent of its servers. The goal is to reach 70 to 80 percent.

The department plans to consolidate five more noncore domestic data centers soon, and are also considering a Software as a Service cloud environment to streamline its applications, along with virtualizing its storage and network.

“You can always condense and consolidate more,” says Mark Benjapathmongkol, division chief of Enterprise Server Operation Centers at the State Department’s Bureau of Information Resource Management.

Since the federal government launched its Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI) in 2010, agencies have made steady progress in consolidating data centers, closing 976 through last May. Agencies plan to shut down another 2,689 of the remaining 9,658 data centers by September 2015, which would result in an estimated $3.3 billion in savings and cost avoidance, according to a September 2014 report from the Government Accountability Office.

$5.35 billion

The estimated savings from federal data center consolidations by 2017

SOURCE: Government Accountability Office, “Data Center Consolidation: Reporting Can Be Improved to Reflect Substantial Planned Savings,” September 2014

Efficiency Is the Key

While eliminating data centers is important, federal IT leaders say the broader goal is to create more efficient computing platforms that focus on virtualization and cloud computing. Those, in turn, can lower energy costs, cut IT spending, reduce facilities costs and bolster security.

“The best way to improve federal data centers is to focus more on optimization generally, not just consolidation specifically,” says Justice Department CIO Joseph Klimavicz, who serves as chairman of the Federal CIO Council’s FDCCI Task Force. To optimize their data centers, many agencies are moving beyond server virtualization to virtualize other parts of the data center, including storage and networks. Doing so turns storage hardware and networking equipment into unified pools of storage and networking r­esources. Through software, IT staffers can easily allocate those resources.

The result is improved uti­lization, simpler IT management, faster ­delivery of services and cost savings.

“It’s a software-driven architecture,” explains Mark Bowker, a senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. “The goal is for IT to get to the point where provisioning and management are highly automated.”

Beyond Server Virtualization

The State Department is still focused on virtualizing servers, but officials also plan to virtualize storage and are considering whether to virtualize the network to further optimize its data centers. The department now operates about 3,700 virtual servers in its core data centers. Benjapathmongkol believes an additional 10 to 15 percent could be virtualized; however, a challenge lies in convincing users to give up their stand-alone physical servers.

Benjapathmongkol says he’s most successful at convincing users to virtualize when they’re going through a server refresh or there’s a mandatory change such as an operating system upgrade.

“They can try to come up with $20,000 to $30,000 to buy new servers and go through the lengthy procurement process, or they can come to my group, and we can get them the virtual servers they need,” he says.

Most remaining servers that run stand-alone apps will reach end of life in 2016 or 2017, so Benjapathmongkol expects virtual migrations will continue.

As part of its optimization strategy this spring, the State Department will begin migrating an East Coast core data center out of a leased building into a small, modular energy-efficient data center roughly the size of a double-wide trailer. The containerized data center can pack the performance of the existing 10,000-square-foot data center into just 1,000 square feet of space.

New hardware is based on converged infrastructure consisting of high-density compute, storage and networking with virtualization pre-integrated.

“We’re buying a high-density computer system, so we can host more virtual machines in each rack,” Benjapathmongkol says.

The consolidation of the East Coast core data center will save money in rent and energy costs and improve security because the new data center will be housed in a government facility.

The facility also will increase server virtualization adoption. The current leased data center houses 7,000 servers, two-thirds of which are virtualized.

As the IT staff migrates to the new data center over the next two years, Benjapathmongkol hopes to virtualize two-thirds of the remaining physical servers. As for virtualizing the rest of the data center infrastructure, the State Department recently made a large purchase to implement storage virtualization. Officials also are researching whether to virtualize the network, which could bolster security.

“You can enforce security policies through software and have things like a virtual firewall to cordon off servers from talking to one another,” he says.

Switching Data Storage Strategies

The Labor Department’s data center consolidation strategy also centers on virtualization.

A few years ago, the department’s initial plan focused on moving IT equipment from small data centers to larger ones simply to reduce the number of facilities. The strategy has now shifted to an Infrastructure as a Service model in a newly built data center in Silver Spring, Md.

“There’s no real savings in forklifting racks from one data center to another because you haven’t reduced the footprint,” says Charles Whiteside, program manager for the Labor Depart-ment’s data center consolidation program. “We’ve made consolidation easier. It allows us to move apps to the cloud and get rid of floor space.”

Every new application runs on virtual servers in the new data center. The department has started migrating applications from other data centers, both virtualized apps and ones on stand-alone servers, to the new facility.

The Labor Department, which began with nine core and 87 noncore data centers, has consolidated about 21 percent so far. The new data center, which houses about 400 virtual servers, will help with those efforts.

Whiteside and his staff are finalizing the target architecture for the new data center and are considering virtualized storage and network capabilities. In the meantime, they will methodically migrate applications from other data centers to the new location, but acknowledge it takes time to coordinate and schedule migrations: “My team understands that while our project is important, the daily work can’t just stop, so we have to work around schedules.”

All About the Cloud

Terry Halvorsen, acting CIO for the Department of Defense, says successful data center consolidation lies in getting the best value and reducing operating costs. Today, the best cost-effective option is the cloud, he says.

“When we first pursued a consolidation strategy, the cloud was not as mature as it is now,” Halvorsen says. “The commercial world has steadily dropped its storage charges.”

To foster cloud adoption, Halvorsen has simplified the procurement process. The department now allows each military service or agency to purchase commercial cloud services directly without having to start the process with the Defense Information Systems Agency. The CIO’s office has also provided guidelines on moving to cloud services, such as how to determine risk and which type of cloud to deploy.

“It’s helping them understand the marketplace and some of the standards to use to make their risk decisions,” Halvorsen says. deciding what’s right

Public-facing data or any data that’s not sensitive or privacy-related should go to a commercial provider, he says. Data that is more sensitive should go to a commercial government-only cloud. Classified data should stay inside government in a DOD private cloud.

The CIO’s office is requiring agencies and departments to perform business case analysis before making decisions. Halvorsen says military services and agencies are all in different stages of data center consolidation and optimization. DOD has made progress, but it can and will do better, he says.

More than 50 percent of DOD’s servers are virtualized, but Halvorsen hopes ultimately to reach the 70 to 75 percent threshold. Halvorsen says the effort to consolidate and optimize data centers is an ongoing project.

“You are not going to be able to say ‘I’m done’ because by the time you get there, the technology and the economics will change again,” Halvorsen says. “This is going to be a continual process.”

Brad Howell

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