Government shutdown of the day: eliminating 800 data centers

And still have two-thirds of them left

Freezing the wages of federal workers isn't the only thing the Obama administration is doing to cut federal spending.

It also plans to cut the federal government's $80 billion IT budget by eliminating more than 800 of its 2,100 data centers by 2015, and move other IT operations to commercial clouds.

White House officials first aired the idea in February, pointing to growth in the number of data centers from 432 in 1998 to 1,100 in 2009 as evidence federal glass houses were proliferating too quickly.

In July the Office of Management and Budget issued a report showing the actual number of the fed's data centers is 2,094.

It's hard to mis-count an entire data center, but not impossible. Most were tucked deep in the dungeon realms of huge office buildings where you have to seek them out wearing sigils and charms to ward off troll-like sysadmins and carry torches to light your way.

It's much different now, of course.

Most buildings are non-smoking, so you have to leave the torches behind.

The discrepancy is almost certainly one of definition. Asked by the OMB last year how many data centers they had, most agencies undoubtedly passed in an accurate count, but might have left out or misclassified contracts for outsourcing, hosting or co-lo that give them the power of a data center, without the cost of real estate, power and cooling or troll food.

The new data-center-reduction goals are "not quite an action plan," government-IT analyst Ray Bjorklund told Computerworld. It's just a wrap-up of White House goals on IT cost cutting which have been in place for quite a while.

Unlike in the private sector, federal IT has not seen much pressure to cut costs or consolidate, despite frequent, sometimes successful, efforts at server consolidation, migration of support-intensive applications to the cloud and other cost-cutting measures.

Eliminating data centers, standardizing and consolidating IT operations and outsourcing non-critical applications to external cloud providers will inevitably eliminate a lot of federal IT jobs, which will make it unpopular within the federal bureaucracy, according to Deniece Peterson, another analyst studying federal IT.

IT people with a bone to pick may not find much sympathy from Obama, who greeted IT executives at a meeting in January by describing D.C. as "the city where I had to fight tooth and nail just to get a Blackberry."

Obama officials don't like the uneven nature of federal IT. Some agencies are very Web 2.0, into social networking and making publicly available data available online.

Others are still waiting for J. Edgar Hoover to walk in the door again, looking for material for his secret (paper) files.

The Patent Office takes in 80 percent of patent applications digitally, for example, then prints them off so clerks can process and file them on paper. The Office of Personnel Management , the fed's HR department, stores personnel files on paper in a cave in Pennsylvania, presumably to keep it from being occupied by Osama bin Laden.

And the State Department, which involuntarily spilled its guts on WikiLeaks' shoulder, spent $133 million during the past six years for reports on the security of its systems. "Frankly the ...reports are more secure than the very systems they're supposed to protect," Federal CIO Vivek Kundra said in March.

The feds have to continue to manage all the risks it faces from all enemies foreign or domestic, of course.

Federal sites and databases are the most hacked in the world and, despite elaborate security in data centers, though not always in other places, the feds need lots more help on security, according to security guru Bruce Schneier.

A survey published in May of federal agencies' IT plans reads like a Gartner hype-list of hot technologies, but the most relevant are that the most important issues are data-center consolidation (50 percent listed it) and IT modernization (52 percent).

The most important technologies -- which, presumably would be the way agencies go about pursuing consolidation and modernization -- are cloud computing (58 percent) and virtualization (52 percent).

That doesn't mean the feds will be successful in pulling data centers out of the IT infrastructure without leaving huge holes in either functionality or security.

At least they're listing the right technologies to make it possible, which is a start.

Unfortunately, federal agencies make a lot of starts on things they often don't finish, or at least don't finish correctly the first time; or the fifth.

So there's no guarantee the feds will actually be able to eliminate 38 percent of its data centers -- which their bosses, remember, have been pushing them to do for almost two solid years.

The freshest evidence that it's working isn't particularly strong. The goal has a new name -- the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative -- and an IT Dashboard designed to highlight the government's cost-saving IT plans, though it will appeal only to those with crossover political/technology geek credentials.

Either way, consolidation should make a big difference in the way federal IT works, both financially and operationally. As data centers close down or move to the cloud, watch for a lot more screwups as data are lost, security holes open and disgruntled, laid-off workers do stupid things that make the news.

You could look at that as governmental incompetence and chaos, but any commercial organization going through upheaval and consolidation goes through the same kinds of contortions. It's just far more public in government, and at a far larger scale.

There's been a lot of consolidation in corporate IT over the past few years. But one organization shutting down 800 data centers and only hitting a third of its facilities? That one's new to me.

It will be interesting to see just how ugly -- or just how non-starting -- the whole thing turns out to be.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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