No matter how complicated and unwieldy you think your data environment is, chances are you have nothing on the federal government.
The U.S. government is the single largest employer in the world, with more than 2 million civilian employees plus another 3.2 million military personnel around the world. That means it has had to build and maintain digital infrastructure of gargantuan size in order to keep all those people connected. Estimated at close to 9,000 data centers, the government IT footprint is clearly in need of a slimdown, not just to cut costs but to keep government processes in working order as mobile and cloud infrastructure take hold in the private sector.
To that end, government agencies have been working on a consolidation project for the past few years that, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has shaved more than $1 billion off the U.S. government’s IT budget so far. The project has already led to the shuttering or planned closing of more than 1,100 data centers, while at the same time encouraging leading departments like the DoD to embrace the cloud and other advanced architectures to ensure that remaining resources can be distributed quickly and evenly to both critical and non-critical functions.
This being the government, however, there is some question as to how effective the program has been, both in a positive and negative sense. The same GAO report identified a number of agencies that have consolidated their data footprints but have seen no appreciable reduction in costs. This is most likely due to the fact that there was no baseline in IT costs to begin with, but having lived and worked in and around Washington nearly all my life, I can safely say that it is common for agency heads to play down cost reductions and tout overruns lest they find next year’s budget reduced to the new working level. In any event, GAO estimates that actual savings could be three times greater than what has been revealed so far.
Like everyone else, however, the government is being crushed by increasing data loads, so its IT requirements are likely to increase nonetheless. This has led to a booming data industry in and around Washington, D.C., undoubtedly packed with state-of-the-art equipment that boasts some of the highest PUE in the nation. Still, nearly all of these facilities are hooked up to local electricity grids that are themselves powered at least in part by coal, oil or other fossil fuels, leading to increased emissions in the capital region and perhaps higher rates for area residents.
And to quibble even further, it is worth noting that the entire consolidation project is funneling large sums of money to contractors that may or may not be providing the best return. A case in point is the Navy’s recent decision to award a $50 million consolidation job to CGI Federal. This is the same organization that was booted from the heathcare.gov project following the, shall we say, less-than-rosy launch of the online exchange last fall. To be fair, the health care site was an unprecedented attempt to build a Google-class infrastructure within a few years, but it does point up the difficulties in upgrading and consolidating government infrastructure, particularly when, in many cases, it has been neglected for decades.
Still, we have to give the government credit for trying to get its IT house in order, even if the results so far are only a billion dollars or so. With any luck and a little perseverance, the savings should start to ramp up in the coming years, plus the incalculable value of increased performance, greater data flexibility and an improved ability to interact with a private sector that is already light years ahead of the federal government in terms of data performance.
Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.