As federal CIOs ramp up initiatives in hot IT areas like cloud computing and virtualization, they are looking to dramatically reduce the number of data centers the government maintains around the country, though officials acknowledge that that effort will take years to complete as agencies work through a litany of challenges.
For starters, the sheer size of the government's IT apparatus -- roughly $80 billion annually -- poses a challenge of a scale that dwarfs any single entity in the private sector.
Describing the scope of the data center consolidation challenge, Brig. Gen. Joseph Brendler, acting deputy CIO with the U.S. Army, spoke of the "magnitude and complexity" of the government's technology portfolio, noting the special challenges in a segment like the military that operates around the globe, often in rugged environments with minimal infrastructure.
"We're really just getting started here," Brendler said at a panel discussion Wednesday, noting that the Department of Defense recently increased its count of data centers, meaning that consolidation will be a bigger project than initially anticipated. "Our objective for consolidation is going to have to be a lot more aggressive than we thought."
DoD is hardly alone in adjusting its data center count. Agencies across the government have been revising their initial tallies in response to a White House directive on consolidating data centers. That loose inventory can be at least partially attributed to the decentralized structure in many departments and agencies, where the IT shops in scores of bureaus operate as siloes, headed by their own CIO, making a it difficult to obtain a complete picture of the portfolio.
Starting Point for Government Data Center Consolidation
Certainly improving data center inventories will be an important starting point for a rational approach to consolidation, which officials say holds the potential for substantial cost savings.
"The first challenge is rewriting the rules for how we sell to the government. We need to get away from 'we sell, you buy, you own' to a more flexible, appropriate model in a consolidated data center that's based more on consumption." --Paul Christman, vice president of Dell Software's public sector division.
According to Brendler, the Army has consolidated 138 data centers to date, translating into $29 million in annual savings. That effort has also seen some 1,100 physical servers decommissioned, freeing up around 55,000 square feet of space in the Army's facilities.
But those cost savings, while real enough, will only materialize over time. And like any major IT initiative, consolidating federal data centers entails substantial expense at the outset. At a time when federal agencies are operating under ever scarcer resources (and now, effectively shut down in a congressional standoff over the budget), marshaling the funds to execute a consolidation plan can be a tough sell.
"It requires some up-front investment, and I'm telling you that up-front investment, even if you can get a return on investment in three years, is becoming extremely difficult to find in this current environment," said Rear Adm. Robert Day, CIO of the U.S. Coast Guard.
From the perspective of tech vendors looking to do business with the government, the fewer, higher-efficiency data centers that would result from consolidation will require a more fundamental shift in the way that CIOs manage their IT operations, and in the procurement process itself, according to Paul Christman, vice president of Dell Software's public sector division.
First Big Challenge to Government Data Center Consolidation
"The first big challenge that we have to work on together is rewriting the rules for how we sell technology to the government. We need to get away from 'we sell, you buy, you own' to a much more flexible, appropriate model in a consolidated data center that's based more on consumption, rather than ownership. I think there's going to need to be a lot of vendor relations that need to be rewritten," Christman said.
"You're not going to own things. You're going to use things. You're going to lease things. You're going to have different financial models, and hopefully those different financial models will allow us to get past this up-front cost of transition."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
Read more about data center in CIO's Data Center Drilldown.