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Dell spurs efficiency by pulling the plug on unnecessary apps
Retiring 7,000 useless or redundant apps contributes to huge efficiency gains in Dell's data centers

Dell has taken its efficiency initiative a step beyond those of most other data center operators: Beyond consolidating hundreds of physical servers, it's pulled the plug on hundreds of others.

One of the key strategies in Dell's efforts to slash energy waste in its data center was to identify precisely which of the 10,000 support applications were necessary. "Our first real 'aha' moment was to challenge the assumption of the phrase 'keeping the lights on' itself, which by definition implies an untouchable set of applications that you must keep running at all costs," said Robin Johnson, CIO at Dell. "We decided instead to look at that part of the business as an opportunity to turn the lights off. Rather than viewing it as the 'must run' portion of IT, we instead became maniacally focused on what could be eliminated from the fixed-cost side of IT."

The first step was to change the way IT billed departments for computer resources. Previously, departments paid a proportionate share of the total IT budget based on their percentage of overall company revenue. Under the model, there was no incentive for departments to give much thought to whether they were running more applications than they needed. Under the new model, departments were charged for their actual usage "but with a twist," said Johnson. "Rather than charging for actual usage using some complex formula of compute capacity consumed, we simply took the entire cost of the data centers and application infrastructure and divided by the total number of applications."

This step helped prepare company leaders for the next stage of the project. Dell's IT department conducted a thorough analysis of the various apps it was supporting and discovered thousands that had no identified owner or appeared to have little or no utilization. Those servers were simply unplugged from the network in controlled batches. Then IT waited for trouble tickets to arrive. "Not surprisingly, for each group of 500 servers that was taken off the network, at most two or three trouble tickets were raised," Johnson said.

This entire process helped Dell eliminate around 60 percent of the 7,000 total apps it ended up removing. The remainder came from identifying niche apps that could be replaced by an enterprise-level solution, as well as weeding out and eliminating duplicate apps.

When these efforts were all done, Dell managed to reduce its number of supported apps from 10,000 to 3,000, which freed up a significant amount of data center resources. These efforts coupled with virtualization have allowed the company to remove 4,000 servers over the past year. Meanwhile, server utilization levels have doubled to 40 percent -- a number Dell is continuing to improve.

Moreover, the company has reaped even more energy savings by upgrading to high-efficiency servers and reorganizing the way it does power and cooling -- including using outside air 150 days of the year in sweltering Austin, Texas. All in all, Dell reports that through its array of data center efficiency efforts, it has increased overall computing capacity by 270 percent, reduced energy consumption by 30 percent, and saved over $50 million in assorted costs. Retiring and consolidating thousands of servers and apps has also simplified IT administration tasks, including management, accounting, and licensing.

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