As detailed in a recent column by InformationWeek's John Foley, the federal government has a data center addiction. Despite ongoing chatter about virtualization, cloud computing, consolidation and shared-services models, the number of federal government data centers has grown over the past decade from almost 500 to approximately 1,200 with more on the way.
Having led the U.S. Postal Service’s efforts to consolidate its data centers -- going from 10 facilities to two -- I know first-hand the significant challenges federal CIO Vivek Kundra faces in breaking this cycle. However, I can also assure him that the potential benefits -- in terms of cost savings for facilities, networking, security, electricity, staffing and a capital refresh every four years -- makes this a battle worth pursuing as this was a key element in our strategy to reduce annual IT spending at USPS by over $ 500 million.
The challenge facing Kundra is the highly decentralized way in which data center decisions are made. For example, I never needed to go beyond my own agency to open or expand a facility. Instead, each federal department or agency has historically justified its internal decision to develop an additional facility on the basis of its "specialized" or "unique" business requirements. Typically, these might relate to information security, the need to maintain continuity of operations, or a desire to have direct access to a specific resource or user community. In other cases, a data center strategy simply evolved with little long-term planning as additional facilities were quickly procured as existing centers reached capacity. Empire building and pork barrel politics may have played a role as well.
However, with the technology services that are available on-demand today, it’s hard to see how these arguments make sense anymore. Simply put, relying on a network of 1,200 disparate data centers, each designed and provisioned differently, adds unacceptable cost and risk to our federal IT operations. Furthermore, it's at odds with our efforts to be more energy efficient and green in general. It would certainly be a lost opportunity to have created the role of the federal CIO and not empower him with the ability to make the meaningful changes that we know are required.
With the increasing standardization of IT, the time has come to pursue the more rational and sustainable data center strategy that Kundra is advocating. A century ago, users recognized the diminishing returns of trying to provide their own electricity. The same is increasingly true today regarding raw computing power. Instead of managing hardware that quickly becomes a commodity and an asset liability, CIOs should focus their efforts on leveraging information, enhancing business processes, and utilizing differentiated technologies to improve their organization's performance.
Outsourcing the nation's IT infrastructure would be the mother of all procurements, but it can be done, and with competition comes significant cost savings for the government as well as the ability to spur new innovation. For those who cite security concerns, think about the information that is currently being carried across leased telco lines. Furthermore, contractors are already responsible for maintaining many of our key government systems.