The computational and storage systems at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, an Energy Department Office of Science facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, is seen. (Lawrence Berkeley / National Laboratory)
The Obama administration plans to shut down more than 100 of its 2,094 data centers this calendar year, as part of a larger effort to shutter 800 centers by 2015.
"We want to move forward very, very aggressively," said federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra at a Senate subcommittee hearing last week.
Agencies will this month submit a list of centers that will be shut down.
Kundra wouldn't say how much the government expects to save by closing hundreds of centers over the next four years, but the figure is likely in the billions of dollars. In 2010, $24 billion of the government's $80 billion information technology budget was spent on data center infrastructure. By migrating hardware and software to a cloud environment, it expects to reduce that cost by 30 percent or $7.2 billion according to the administration's cloud computing strategy.
The General Services Administration (GSA) expects to reduce data center costs by $2 million annually, said David McClure, associate administrator for GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, who also testified at the hearing.
But in shutting down data centers, there is often a significant up-front cost.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has closed six data centers since it began consolidating in 2008. Department CIO Richard Spires said he expects to spend about $600 million to go from 43 data centers down to two, which includes system upgrades and adding disaster recovery capabilities. Spires couldn't provide the estimated savings but said he expects more efficiency to come from consolidation.
In addition, closing data centers is like closing other types of facilities. Managers must give up control, affected staffs may be disrupted, and labor-management battles can ensue.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., asked Kundra if he is seeing any pushback from agencies.
"I think once we release the locations and the names, I'm sure there's going to be a lot of robust discussion back and forth," Kundra replied.
The Interior Department, which closed two leased data centers in Phoenix and Anadarko, Okla., last quarter, has vowed to close 17 of its 210 centers this year. Closure of the centers will likely have no impact on the IT workforce and will do little to cut the department's overall rent and utility costs because they were small data processing facilities.
A huge capitol investment upfront wasn't an option, given the current budget climate, said Andrew Jackson, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services, in an interview.
"We've had to develop a boot-strap strategy," Jackson said.
Achieving the Office of Management and Budget's goal to shut down 800 centers by 2015 doesn't leave agencies much time, given the constraints of lease agreements, existing contracts and budget uncertainties that have forced agencies to operate at 2010 spending levels, among other challenges.
But the biggest hurdle, most CIOs seem to agree, is cultural.
Spires, who co-chairs a U.S. Chief Information Officers Council task force on data centers, said it's sometimes hard for individuals to appreciate the value of migrating servers out of a program's facility to a centralized location. "It's OK if everybody else's is done that way, but they'd like to hold on to theirs," he said in an interview.
Agencies don't think about owning their own networks, and Spires is encouraging them to think of servers the same way. What is most important are the applications and systems running on the servers, not the hardware itself.
Agencies' consolidation plans showed they were using less than 30 percent of the available storage space on their servers. By shifting ownership to an outside party, agencies can reduce costs by paying only for what they use.
At Interior, bureau-level CIOs are active in the consolidation process, but the department CIO is ultimately responsible for executing the plan, Jackson said.
Some bureaus were already planning consolidations said the effort has been collaborative, and bureaus were asked to help identify the data centers that could be closed because they are familiar with the technology and directly rely on the data centers.
Government has been accustomed to building its own infrastructure, but the shift now is toward delivering information technology services remotely, through so-called through cloud computing.
The names of program managers dedicated to data center consolidation at each agency were listed on cio.gov, and OMB will launch a public website to track theses efforts.
The government's inventory of data centers ballooned: from 432 in 1998 to 2,094 and counting in 2010. A chief reason the numbers have been rising is that agencies continually reassess their inventories and count more facilities as the definition of a data center changes. The government defines a data center as any room greater than 500 square feet that is devoted to data processing and falls into one of four classifications.
Impact on contractors The ratio of government-owned to private-sector data centers isn't clear across government, but most data centers at DHS are leased. Four of the six centers the department has closed were commercially owned.
Spires said he has not and will not lay off any federal employees during the consolidation initiative, but that pledge does not extend to contractors. He said DHS has to tighten its belt, and that means scaling back on contractor work. The logical break to end contracts for some leased centers will align with the contracts' renewal options.
He made clear that the closing of data centers does not equate to termination of systems. Many employees are not co-located with the data centers but work from remote locations. And the White House has encouraged agencies to train and redeploy staff to "higher-value activities" when possible.
Interior is looking at a range of options to minimize impact on its staff, including retraining, buyout opportunities and building on other employee skills, Jackson said.
A private-sector example Workers may have to learn entirely new skill sets. At Intel Corp., data center workers were retrained to manage virtual machines rather than physical machines.
Then there are issues of security, privacy, storage, bandwidth, computing power, real property and energy specifics that must be considered. The selection process alone has its own challenges because some data centers can't be shut down.
It took Intel Corp. years to create an accurate inventory of its 147 data centers, said Brad Ellison, the company's senior data center engineer. He said the company spent $250,000 a year doing upgrades and managing capacity on the data centers. In 2006, the original goal was to consolidate down to six by 2014. After two years, "it became very clear that there were some overriding technical and business requirements," Ellison said.
There were concerns about the reliability of the data centers given their distance from the factories they supported and how fast data traveled to end users, he said.
Intel has consolidated down to 91 data centers and will have avoided $650 million in costs by 2014, he said.
Data center consolidation is a journey, not a destination, Ellison said. "It's a living strategy that will change over time just to reflect the realities."