Federal Data Center Closures No Panacea: Navy CIO

Navy's top IT official takes issue with the federal government's focus on cutting the number of government data centers, says it misses the big picture on IT cost control.

Wyatt Kash, former Editor, InformationWeek Government

July 15, 2013

6 Min Read

New York's 32-Story Data 'Fortress'

New York's 32-Story Data 'Fortress'

New York's 32-Story Data 'Fortress' (click image for slideshow)

The Navy's top IT official took issue with the federal government's myopic focus on cutting the number of government data centers as a way to reduce costs, saying it diverts attention from the overall view of managing IT cost effectively.

"Stop worrying about the number of data centers. It's absolutely not the metric (that matters)," Navy CIO Terry Halverson told a group of government and industry executives and legislative aides at a technology briefing at the U.S. Capitol on July 10. "The metric is how much am I paying to store all the data collectively?"

Halverson said, instead of focusing on the number of data centers, his approach would be to "take $1.4 billion out of my data center costs -- the money is gone" -- and then channel investments where they're needed most. There are big savings in managing your data better, using better options, he said. "The trick is knowing the value of the data and where the users are."

"There are some places where it absolutely makes sense, given the new technology, to put a data pod right next to the user -- (it's) the cheapest way to do it. That's not where your costs are," he argued. He urged federal IT leaders instead to "look at what you're doing with your data; look at the best way to meet your mission with that data; and then look at the pricing. That's where we have to focus our time and stop counting the number of data centers we've closed."

[ Want details on the Navy's new Next Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN)? See How Navy Sliced $1 Billion From Intranet Deal. ]

Speaking at a cloud computing forum sponsored by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, Halverson derided the number and nature of government data center definitions. "We've had 25 or 30," he said, that have come out under the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, describing facilities that in many instances are little more than the size of a telecommunications closet.

One of the fundamental flaws in the logic suggesting that closing data centers will result in government IT savings, said Halverson, is the fact that "we aren't a business. Sometimes what a business can do when they close a data center is sell the land, they stop the lease -- I don't get that savings (under government accounting practices)," he said. "Most of my data centers aren't standalone buildings. They are in buildings that are used for other things. So closing a data center isn't going to get me the savings you hear other people talk about."

Another factor lost in the debate about closing data centers, he said, is the importance of scale.

"I have one network that has 897,000 people on it. That's a big number," he said. "People ask, 'why can't you do this faster?'" Pointing out that the Navy must maintain network operations from Antarctica to space, let alone across the seas, he said, "If I patched everything perfectly, running at optimum speed ... physics says it takes a certain amount of time to get that done. You really have to understand all parts of your environment," and "not just pick pieces of your environment and say I'm going to do 'X.' It's not going to work."

Halverson wasn't alone in suggesting during the forum that the focus on data centers is failing to deliver promised savings. Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, faulted the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and government agencies more broadly for their lack of overall progress in reining in federal IT spending.

"I'm disappointed in the federal government," in the way it manages IT, said Connolly. "This matters, because, if you look at the $81 billion a year we spend on IT acquisition and maintenance, at least $20 billion of it is lost (in) sunk costs and old, antiquated legacy systems." Connolly noted that the OMB and the General Services Administration (GSA) refused to participate in a May 10 subcommittee hearing on data center consolidation. (A GSA official, in response, said the agency was given only four days notice to prepare for the hearing.) "When we looked at the results, most federal agencies had no progress to report whatsoever on data center consolidation," Connolly said. He expressed exasperation when he learned "Within a few weeks of that hearing, OMB announced there were an additional 3,000 data centers that hadn't even been reported" on top of the 3,133 that had been identified as part of the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative.

Connolly joked about government systems that still rely on decades-old COBOL programming language. "The good news about that is, though it costs money (to maintain), the Chinese don't know how to hack into COBOL."

The House last month adopted IT reform legislation put forth by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Connolly. The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) is aimed at streamlining and strengthening the federal IT acquisition process, promoting the adoption of best practices from the technology community, and granting greater authority and accountability to agency CIOs.

Halverson later noted during the forum, however, that COBOL remains a very cost-effective approach in some instances.

"For non-distributed apps, used by a large group of centrally located people, it's a great way to keep your costs down. In other cases, if you want to change (or consolidate your system), it means changing your language, and the whole process and applications that go around it, and that costs money to do. So you have to make sure you've done the business case (to support that move.)

ITIF president and forum host Robert D. Atkinson suggested that one approach to dealing with the overabundance of federal data centers might be to borrow the approach of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission in overcoming the political forces that stand in the way of making rational investment decisions.

"What about a Data Center Closure Commission," he suggested. "You identify the top 10% that are the most costly and inefficient and somebody decides those are the ones that are going to be closed across the government."

Acknowledging it was a good idea, Halverson quickly noted, "It's really hard to do, though."

About the Author(s)

Wyatt Kash

former Editor, InformationWeek Government

Wyatt Kash is a former Editor of InformationWeek Government, and currently VP for Content Strategy at ScoopMedia. He has covered government IT and technology trends since 2004, as Editor-in-Chief of Government Computer News and Defense Systems (owned by The Washington Post Co. and subsequently 1105 Media). He also was part of a startup venture at AOL, where he helped launch AOL Government. His editorial teams have earned numerous national journalism awards. He is the 2011 recipient of the G.D. Crain Award, bestowed annually on one individual nationally for outstanding career contributions to editorial excellence in American business media.

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