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The government-wide push to consolidate agency data centers, now in its fifth year, continues to be an uphill battle for federal IT leaders. Plagued from the start by budget cuts and a lack of reliable information about IT asset inventories, the consolidation and rationalization of the government’s technology infrastructure has been a slow process.

By February, government agencies had closed about 640 data centers. The initiative started in 2010. According to the US government’s website about 470 more facilities have been earmarked to close between October 2013 and November 2014.

But as the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative progresses many agencies have started to take a more mature approach to data center operations. There is increased focus on standardization and energy-efficiency measures, and the government is doing more to address IT system and software duplication.

Changing business patterns
Steven Warner, technical fellow, R&D manager and chief scientist at the aerospace and defense technology giant Northrop Grumman, said he can see a difference in the way he does business with federal clients. He’s noticed a reduction in the amount of business the government does in some areas of technology and an increase in others.

Northrop is doing less system administration work. “There are fewer systems in fewer places to administer,” Warner said.

The company is, however, helping agencies go through the consolidation process and implement cloud computing.

US government consolidation and the migration of applications to the Cloud have been advancing hand in hand. Generally, transition, transformation and integration are now considered a “growth market”.

The directive from the White House has been to consolidate data centers, while consolidation of planning and logistics have been left to the agencies. Agencies in turn came to vendors, such as Northrop, asking: “How do you make it work?” Warner said.

Agencies are dealing with systems at different stages, including aging hardware, internal systems that interface with external systems and disaster recovery capabilities.

“There are a lot of issues with even just moving a rack from point A to point B. Agencies need external help,” Warner said.

The consolidation initiative has also brought a new predisposition toward standardization in data center management practices. “There’s a drive toward standardization and reproducibility that wasn’t there before,” Warner said. He sees federal data center operators implementing cabling standards, for example, which state clearly how to label and how much slack to leave when cabling a rack.

Finding the cash to pay for consolidation projects remains a big challenge for agencies. And ensuring these complicated projects are done right requires investment, which has been difficult when budgets have been cut.

“The [agency] CIOs understand this,” Warner said. However, he admits that it is difficult to get the point across in the higher echelons of budget planning.

A legislative push is taking place and, if successful, it may amplify the CIOs’ voice in budget planning. The House of Representatives passed a bill in February that will require agency CIOs to participate in technology-related budget planning and approve technology personnel hiring. Technology personnel will also be required to report to CIOs.

At the time of writing, this bill, called the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, was going through Senate.

More focus on energy
The US federal government has also become a lot more aware of the amount of energy its data center fleet consumes. Roger Flanagan, director of energy services at Lockheed Martin, said he has seen the number of energy audits in federal data centers increase in the past three years.

This represents a change in focus for government operations teams. Energy efficiency is a common component in agency data center consolidation plans, and this is mostly down to cost.  Energy savings from the combination of physical footprint reduction and modernization of IT can be up to 70%, Flanagan said.

It is a big shift for federal data center operators. Many have traditionally concentrated almost entirely on availability.

“The first priority is to keep the data centers operating and keep continuous uptime,” Flanagan said.

“The finer points of optimization for energy efficiency have usually taken a back seat.”

This article first appeared in FOCUS 35. Read the full digital edition here.