When Oklahoma began its data center consolidation in 2011, each of the state’s more than 170 agencies had been procuring its own IT infrastructure. “We had 129 different email systems and 30 data center and computer room locations,’” says Dustin Crossfield, Oklahoma director of technology services for the Information Services Division of the state’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES). “We had agencies with one email deployment on the first floor and another on the second floor.”
As with a lot of states looking to save money during the recession, Oklahoma embarked on a massive initiative of consolidation, virtualization and private-cloud services. As OMES moved agency applications into its large Tier 3 data center, infrastructure that had been previously purchased, owned and managed by agencies largely became centralized within OMES IT cloud services. Each agency established service-level agreements with OMES and monthly usage charges were billed back to each agency. In most cases, agencies’ private email servers were decommissioned, with the accounts rolled into the OMES Microsoft Exchange server. Most of the agencies’ other server applications now run on virtual machines on OMES servers.
The consolidation is about 55 percent complete and has saved the state $77 million while enhancing IT services, performance, security and disaster recovery, according to Crossfield.
Oklahoma’s consolidation story may be unusual in its scale and ambition – but not in its strategy. Taking their cue from the 2010 Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, many state and local governments have embarked on some form of data center and IT consolidation. According to a NASCIO report, “Charting the Course: Leading Collaboration During Uncertain Times,” 52 percent of states had completed data center consolidation projects in 2014, and 40 percent had ongoing consolidation projects.
“States and counties see budgets and IT staff shrinking on the one hand, and rampant demand for new services and an expanded mission on the other,” says Greg Herbold, director of U.S. sales programs for state and local government and education at HP Enterprise Group. “Others face legislation that sets IT savings targets.”
“Constituents expect to interact with their government services the same way they do with their banks,” says Jason Dies, general manager for the public sector at IBM Global Technology Services. “Agencies need an infrastructure that can support a rapid build-out of new applications and new ways for people to interact with them in a seamless manner. Data center consolidation and virtualization are the first steps towards cataloging applications, data and services and applying automation and new technologies and applications quickly and efficiently.”
Herbold agrees, adding, “Data center consolidation is commonly the on-ramp to mobility, cloud, security and Big Data.”
Indeed, in addition to the cost savings and efficiency improvements that data center consolidation has delivered, other benefits for Oklahoma have been substantial. “These efforts have allowed us to offer agencies and their users services and capabilities they could never afford or put together themselves,” says Crossfield. “Their uptime and disaster recovery is far superior to what it was before. Security has improved vastly, thanks to a centralized security operations center that monitors and protects all traffic coming in and out of consolidated agency systems. A small agency is not likely to have a database developer to create a mobile app. Now, it can come to us.”
Centralized database systems and applications have also enabled a state-wide Big Data analytics push that will allow new insights into how Oklahoma’s government operates, which will help the state find new opportunities for cutting costs and improving services. Centralized IT will also allow smaller agencies to deploy mobile services more easily.
Cost savings come not only from reduced data center hardware, software, real estate, heating and cooling, but also from more efficient, centralized infrastructure management and reduced time and resources needed to get new applications and initiatives into production. “Data centers cost a lot to maintain,” says William Hickox, chief operating officer of the Delaware Department of Technology and Information, which is also involved in a major consolidation from six data centers to two. “In our case, many of the data centers we consolidated were Tier 1 or 2, so they were not only expensive, but also not as reliable as our department’s two Tier 3 data centers.”
Many of the consolidation efficiencies come from virtualization, which allows states to reduce the number of physical servers they run by operating them as virtual machines on a smaller number of servers. This technology allows IT administrators to provision computing and storage for applications from a single virtual pool. Software-defined networking is an emerging technology that promises to bring the same efficiencies and pooling capabilities to the network.
Capital costs can be transferred to operational costs when states and local governments take advantage of cloud services, including Infrastructure-, Software- and Platform-as-a-Service (IaaS, SaaS and PaaS). Instead of taking weeks to purchase and install new hardware servers, IT staff can provision hardware and software in minutes.
All data center consolidation projects are challenging, but state and local governments have unique hurdles of their own. “Private companies can take a top-down approach to consolidation,” says Dies. “State and local governments are more voluntary environments where buy-in is absolutely essential. The state CIO or whoever is pushing the effort usually has to communicate the benefits to agencies convincingly and involve them heavily in the planning.”
Richard Howze, CIO of Louisiana, agrees. “You simply can’t do enough communicating to ensure your customer base of agencies is aware of where you’re headed and onboard with your plans,” he says. Louisiana is conducting a data center consolidation among 16 state agencies. Previously, each agency had its own IT director and deputy director, and many had their own data centers, which are being consolidated into two data centers. An important part of the communication effort was to assure agency IT staff that they wouldn’t lose their jobs.
The first step in any data center consolidation effort should be an agency-wide inventory of data centers, applications and associated hardware and software.
“Agencies typically have multiple data centers and server rooms with different servers, storage, networking, operating systems and software, as well as the IT staffs running them,” says Greg Schulz, advisory analyst for StorageIO, and IT consultancy.
When looking at which data centers to consolidate, state and local governments should start by identifying those that have room to grow and those that have reached their limits. “Some data centers are very old, out of physical space or power, or just expensive to maintain for some reason,” says Schulz. “These are candidates for consolidation.”
“Many of our agency data centers were in buildings that were really never meant to hold a data center,” says Howze, “while others — our two main data centers — had multiple power feeds, multiple generator backups and other things you’d expect.” Some data centers also may have underutilized servers and storage hardware.
After conducting a thorough inventory, IT managers should look for ways to consolidate software that serves overlapping purposes. Much of this research will require talking not only to agency IT staff members but to users as well. “Identify applications that are growing and shrinking and, in general, not properly sized,” says Anil Desai, an independent IT consultant. “You may have applications that were built for 1,000 users but are only being used by 200 or vice-versa. Those are good cases where virtualization will help you scale better, increase data center resource utilization and enhance agility.“
As they consolidate, many agencies start thinking about the cloud. Email is a great candidate for the cloud since it may be accessed by mobile devices. Many agencies experiment with IaaS by moving development platforms and testing to a cloud environment. Cloud services allow an IT department to set up a testing platform quickly — and to decommission it just as quickly. The agency pays only for the resources it uses. Cloud backup is another way to test cloud computing without putting production systems at risk.
Virtualization can take place on existing hardware, or virtual servers can reside on a new hardware server and storage deployment. In data centers where extensive virtualization hasn’t taken place, servers may be at utilization levels as low as 20 percent. Virtualization is the first step toward a private cloud, enabling fast provisioning, automation and user self-service.
Virtualization can also be part of a hardware refresh that takes advantage of more robust infrastructure platforms. Agencies should consider alternative platforms such as blade server technologies and solutions from Cisco, HP, Nutanix and others that converge computing, storage and networking components into a single platform, with management software geared to control it all intelligently. These solutions – commonly referred to as converged infrastructure – can deliver easier management, agility and reduced data center footprint, which can result in a lower total cost of ownership. “You set it up, you virtualize, and thereafter there’s very little virtualization administration,” says Chris Howard, vice president for federal sales at Nutanix. “It’s like a purpose-built virtualization appliance.”
Many agencies also are challenged by the amount of data they collect and produce. Unified storage platforms from vendors such as HP, EMC and NetApp can allow IT managers to quickly and easily provision new storage from a single, virtualized storage pool. Unified storage means allows both block storage used by database applications and file storage to be provisioned from the same platform. Both converged and unified storage platforms can also be part of tiered storage solutions that store information on different platforms based on performance needs and frequency. For example, data that must be accessed quickly and often can be stored locally on a high-speed (and relatively high-cost) medium such as solid-state drives for fast recovery, while data that is used less often, perhaps for regulatory purposes, can be archived to disks at lower cost.
As they move forward with data center consolidation, IT leaders should consider the cultural implications of such significant changes. The loss of control of IT hardware and software is disconcerting for many state and local IT professionals whose systems are migrated to a centralized system, perhaps a private cloud. But once they see the results, they generally are convinced of the benefits.
“Folks are used to being able to see and touch their servers,” says Hickox. “You have to convince them of the disaster recovery and other benefits. Now they don’t even question it.”
To learn more about how cloud computing and virtualization are affecting every aspect of IT in the data center, check out the CDW webinar “Data Center Evolution Accelerates.”