U.S. agencies aren't tracking data center use

A lack of knowledge about the storage capacity of data centers raises questions about government efforts to close hundreds of data centers

Even though the U.S. White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has pushed government agencies to reduce the number of data centers they operate, a new survey has found that most agencies aren't tracking how close to capacity their data centers are or how much energy they're using.

The survey, of 157 U.S government IT decision-makers, found that only 25 percent are tracking the amount of storage capacity used at their data centers, and only 26 percent are tracking their data centers' energy consumption. Twenty-three percent of respondents said they can track the savings from data center consolidation, the survey said.

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Just 41 percent of respondents said their agencies track the number of servers they operate at data centers, and just 32 percent track their annual storage spending, according to the survey, released this week by MeriTalk, an online network focused on the government IT community.

The survey raises questions about an OMB plan to close hundreds of government data centers in the next four years in an effort to save money and reduce energy consumption, said Mark Weber, president of the U.S. public sector division at NetApp, a network storage vendor that commissioned the survey. Weber doesn't dispute that there are too many U.S. government data centers, but better tracking would tell OMB which ones should be closed, he said.

"They're really counting physical things, not how efficiently those physical things are utilized," Weber said. "How do you know what to consolidate until you know how efficient it is?"

It would be "common sense" to track data center capacity and energy use before moving forward with OMB's data center consolidation proposal, Weber said.

The survey seems to show a huge gap between private industry tracking of data center use and the federal government's, Weber added. Just 31 percent of survey respondents from federal agencies knew the average load across their data centers, compared to more than 90 percent in the private sector, he said.

The survey isn't all bad news for the federal government, he said. "Look what they could be doing if they start tracking these things and determining how efficiently the assets they have are being utilized," he said. "Look at how much savings they could gain."

The U.S. government operates about 2,100 data centers, outgoing federal government CIO Vivek Kundra said in a federal IT reform proposal released in December. Kundra, leaving OMB for Harvard University later this year, called on agencies to close 800 data centers by 2015.

Kundra, in an April 2010 speech, said many federal data centers are using about 7 percent of their servers, suggesting that someone at OMB has tracked some data center numbers.

An OMB spokesman wasn't available for comment on the survey.

Many government data centers that came online in recent years may have been based on projections that didn't take into account relatively new technologies like virtualization, Weber said. Given a multi-year funding cycle for large IT projects, it's no surprise that the government has too many data centers, he said.

"They made the best guess they could," he added.

The MeriTalk survey shows that more information is needed as OMB moves to close data centers, said Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of a Senate subcommittee focused on government IT spending.

The survey is a "bright warning light for those of us interested in closing and consolidating wasteful and duplicative data centers," Carper said in a statement. "There's also little knowledge about how much -- and how efficiently -- federal data centers are using energy. While we are trying to cut the fat from our data center budgets, it seems we can't even see over our belts to the number on the scale."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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