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Streamlining Servers

Federal agencies trim machines and costs to enhance security and reliability.

For the Labor Department,
Air Force Air Mobility
Command (AMC) and Food
and Drug Administration
(FDA), the diagnosis was
the same: It was time to
stop indulging in servers
and start dieting.

Four years ago, the AMC networks
were straining at the seams with 96 e-mail
servers supporting 65,000 personnel who
deliver equipment and supplies, handle
evacuations and refuel aircraft for U.S.
forces. The command took aim, and its
two-year consolidation project will save
about $40 million over 10 years.

At the Labor Department, a dozen
different groups ran three separate e-mail
programs and used multiple formats
for e-mail addresses. The department's
15-month e-mail consolidation project
united the agency on a single e-mail
application and is now planning a
similar project for data.

Like AMC and Labor, the FDA, with
900 servers on its network, is turning to
consolidation. The agency's IT managers
have done an exhaustive asset inventory
and are gearing up to consolidate its
overload of servers by 20 percent.

These three agencies join a growing
number of IT organizations engaged in
server consolidation projects to save
money in an era of dwindling budgets.
Many federal agencies, including Health
and Human Services and Transportation,
are implementing or planning server
consolidation projects—either through
better management of existing servers or
replacement of older servers with fewer,
more powerful machines.

The efforts streamline administration
and server monitoring, and also yield cost
savings. Having fewer servers enables
agencies to reduce the costs of server
operating systems, software licenses and
annual maintenance fees from vendors.
The consolidation also decreases support
costs from government IT staff. Additional
benefits include enhanced reliability,
improved security and easier management
of server operations.

Labor-Intensive Consolidation

Standardizing on hardware and software
makes servers easier to administer and
improves software usability, according
to Patrick Pizzella, Labor's assistant
secretary and CIO.

Before Labor's server consolidation
project, its agencies were running three
different e-mail programs. The formats for
addresses were inconsistent, making it
difficult for workers to e-mail colleagues
in other Labor agencies.

As part of its consolidation project,
which was completed last year, Labor
standardized on Microsoft Exchange and
Outlook e-mail server and client software.
The department also chose one uniform
syntax for all e-mail addresses.

"It's common sense from a strategic
e-government approach," Pizzella says.

"We found many organizations in the
private sector that would not function
with several e-mail systems. That helped
bring clarity to the way we communicated
internally, as well as externally."

Now that the e-mail consolidation is
completed, Pizzella is considering a
bigger server consolidation project. In
preparation, his IT staff is inventorying
all agency servers, along with the
databases and software applications that
operate on them.

Air Force Takes Off—Carefully

For a server consolidation project to work,
good planning—involving every affected
department and office—is essential, points
out Lt. Col. Dean Mallory, commander of
the 868th Communications Squadron.
But, he adds, IT leaders need to adapt
and change their strategy if the initial
plan isn't working.

Lack of centralization helped create
AMC's e-mail problem. Each of its 12
bases ran its own e-mail system, with
larger bases having two or three e-mail
systems apiece. To meet current and
projected needs, each base bought new
servers, which resulted in an oversupply.

The command's IT leaders resolved
the issue by consolidating 96 servers into
40 and centralizing e-mail operations in
a data center at AMC headquarters at
Scott Air Force Base (AFB) in Illinois. To
do so, AMC bought some new, more
powerful servers, and then loaded the
underutilized servers with more e-mail
users and data, thereby allowing AMC to
eliminate old or unnecessary servers.

"With 96 servers spread all over,
some were not used to full capacity,"
recalls Gail Van Winkle, the command's
networks division chief. "Now, instead
of many servers that were partially used,
we have fewer servers that are used more
efficiently."

The consolidation team took a
measured, incremental approach. First,
it consolidated e-mail at two sites to
work out any kinks. The initial focus
was on headquarters at Scott AFB and
on the smaller Charleston AFB in South
Carolina.

"We worked with Scott Air Force Base
first because we wanted to feel our own
pain, and figure out how difficult this
would really be," Mallory says.

The command had planned to migrate
the users' e-mail into the new server
configuration and then unite all the e-mail
users under Microsoft Active Directory,
which serves as a central location for
information about users, passwords and
other computing resources. But that
strategy proved technically difficult,
Mallory says. AMC quickly learned it
should be the other way around: Install
Active Directory first, then migrate e-mail
users into the new server configuration.

By the time the project expanded to
the third base, IT leaders had worked
out the problems. In fact, military
personnel experienced no e-mail
downtime. The only change for users
was a new login process to access e-mail,
says Maj. Jeff Granger, manager for
AMC's Information Technology Services
and Transformation program.

"We had our routine figured out,"
Granger recalls. "It would involve us
sending a team to the base and briefing
the leadership on what would happen.
Then, over nights and weekends, we
would create the Active Directory
environment, join the various parts
together, and move the e-mail accounts
and all the data into a consolidated
environment."

Because the consolidation centralized
e-mail throughout AMC, military
personnel could log into e-mail at any
base, which they couldn't do before. As
part of the project, the command also
developed e-mail rules and policies,
including limiting the amount of e-mail
employees can store in in-boxes.
Previously, some e-mail servers became
overburdened when users didn't delete
mail or sent extremely large files.

For the e-mail project, Mallory
brought in server operating systems from
Microsoft and storage software from EMC.

When the project was completed in
2002, the command spent six to nine
months improving the new system's
reliability. The vendor said that each
e-mail server could handle up to 7,500
e-mail accounts, so the command loaded
7,500 users on each server.

However, according to Mallory, the
AMC discovered that while 7,500 users
can reside on a server, no more than
5,000 of them should be active at the
same time. So the command quickly
added more servers to its data center
and reduced the number of users on
each server.

"The hardware couldn't keep up with
the traffic," Mallory says, adding that his
team "worked closely with Microsoft to
optimize the network." He advises IT
leaders to consult with vendors for
effective troubleshooting.

The AMC consolidation has increased
security and eased day-to-day network
management. "We have a smaller cadre of
experts to take care of the consolidated
environment," Mallory says. "But, with a
smaller network, they can concentrate on
protecting it from viruses and all the
things flying through e-mail."

Slimmer Servers at FDA

FDA has meticulously laid the groundwork
for its own successful server consolidation
project. During the past two years, IT
leaders have reorganized the agency's
technology staff and conducted an
agencywide asset inventory as part of
its overall IT consolidation strategy to
operate more efficiently.

The effort involved consolidating
IT management as well as technology.
Previously, the FDA's largest centers and
offices had autonomous IT staffs. Now, all
IT services and staffs report directly to
FDA CIO James Rinaldi. As part of its
consolidation effort, FDA is building
processes and policies, such as
standardizing on PCs and vendors, for
the agency's entire IT operation.

The next step is planning out the
server consolidation, according to Jeff
Cooper, director of the Office of
Information Technology Shared Services
(OITSS). The goal—when the FDA moves
to new headquarters in the next three to
four years—is to consolidate the OITSS
servers at a central data center.

Meanwhile, the agency is studying
interim steps to reduce servers. In a
separate project, FDA also plans to
consolidate e-mail servers in the next year
as part of a mandate from the Department
of Health and Human Services.

While the cost savings and other
benefits inherent in server consolidation
will pay off, the effort involved is
considerable. At FDA, two years of
detailed preparation have included
inventorying IT assets, reorganizing IT
staff and extensive planning.

"It's much more difficult than it seems
on the surface," Cooper cautions. "But it
really does make a lot of sense to do it."

THREE ROUTES, ONE GOAL: SERVER CONSOLIDATION

Just as no two agencies are exactly alike, neither are server
consolidation projects. Though all consolidation efforts involve
asset inventory, IT leaders have three basic technical options.

Virtual servers: Using virtual server software, IT staff can
partition a single server, enabling it to simultaneously run multiple
operating systems and handle multiple tasks.

Blade servers: The second approach involves using thin servers.
Space-saving and easy to administer, blade servers are finding a
home in increasing numbers of agency computer rooms. Smaller than
conventional rack-mountable servers, blade servers slip into multiple
stacks of berths in a special chassis, which offers a shared power
supply, cooling and centralized networking capabilities. In contrast,
rack-mountable servers require their own cables, power supply,
cooling fan and network connections. Another blade advantage is the
hot-swappable factor: If one fails, it can be replaced immediately
without shutting down the server.

Resource management: A third option relies on more efficient
resource management. The IT asset inventory lets managers identify
consolidation targets such as slow, old servers. The same inventory
can identify underutilized servers to which functions and data from
the retired servers can be moved. Efficiencies can also be gained by
eliminating redundancies, such as multiple servers running identical
applications.

IT managers can choose a single approach or combine strategies
to create an individual consolidation roadmap.

Whatever path a server consolidation may take, in addition to
hardware and software efficiencies, it will deliver a reduced need
for a scarce resource: skilled IT professionals. Since existing staff
will be spending less time putting out network fires, they'll have
more time for planning and training, resulting in even greater
efficiencies.

SERVER CONSOLIDATION GROWTH

Currently consolidating:

2003 -
61%; 1998 - 30%

Considering consolidation:

2003 - 28%;
1998 - 45%

No plans to consolidate:

2003 - 6%;
1998 - 25%

Consolidation completed:

2003 - 5%;
1998 - 0%

Source: Gartner Inc., December 2003 survey of 518 of its clients

FOUR BEST PRACTICES

1. Upper management must
provide strong direction,
support and clearly defined
goals.

2. Form a project team that
includes all affected
parties, and develop lines of
authority.

3. Establish interim
milestones to ensure the
project stays on track, and
monitor every department's
progress on a weekly basis.

4. Educate staff about the
potential impact. For
example, when the Labor
Department consolidated
its e-mail programs and
developed new use policies, it
trained the staff in both areas.

Source: Patrick Pizzella, assistant
secretary and CIO, Department of Labor

Dec 31 2009

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