Simplify the workplace with IT data centre consolidation (part 1)

Data centre consolidation is all the rage again, but today's payoff is more about agility than mere cost savings. Here's how a range of organisations have managed to shrink IT -- and stay in one piece.


This is the first part of a two-part article. The second part will be published tomorrow, and linked to here.

TRW Automotive, a Tier One global supplier of auto safety products, had a big control problem. “We had always operated as a dozen or so largely independent business units, each with its own systems,” says Joe Drouin, vice president and CIO. “As a result, we had dozens of mission-critical applications, including multiple flavours of SAP, running in dozens of different places.”

Compliance and disaster recovery were particularly challenging, Drouin recalls. “In our first year of Sarbanes-Oxley, far too much time was spent on internal and external audits of every server and application that was anywhere. We also had one of those classic disaster-recovery plans that was really just a plan, and gosh help us if we ever had to implement it.”

The solution: a major consolidation effort. TRW Automotive went from dozens of distributed data centres to four. And centralised Dell/EMC SAN storage made a viable disaster-recovery strategy much more practical and affordable, while helping the company meet its compliance responsibilities.

Consolidation efforts such as TRW’s reflect the imperative that has ruled IT for the past five years: Do more with less. On the ground, that means centralising and rationalising data centres, servers, applications, management tools, and network infrastructure -- the result of mergers, acquisitions, and unconstrained technology growth -- into fewer, standardised, more manageable data centres and platforms.

Consolidation recently has been given an extra boost, thanks to new technologies such as virtualisation and 64-bit, multi-core hardware that packs more punch into a smaller footprint. At the same time, expectations have risen sharply.

Reducing costs, raising the bar

Five years ago, the main motivation for consolidation was cost reduction. “After the Internet bubble burst, lots of companies looked for ways to cut 30 percent or more from their IT budgets,” says Steve Fink, who runs HP’s IT consolidation group. “Many succeeded through consolidation. Today, however, it’s all about synchronising business and technology to be more responsive to the customer than your competitors.”

Consolidation can be an effective way to gain that agility. “Companies have found that consolidation strategies such as [server and storage] virtualisation not only allow them to do more with the resources they have, but to be more flexible, agile, responsive, and available as well,” says Michelle Bailey, vice president at IDC. For example, using server and storage virtualisation, provisioning can be completed in a fraction of the time.

But agility and efficiency aren’t the only motivators. For First American, a leading financial information provider, high availability was key. “As the company became a major information provider, we knew we had to provide super reliability in a very modern data centre,” says First American CTO Evan Jafa. First American has so far consolidated 25 locations to two data centres, which it built from scratch to provide high-density power and cooling.

The company is not alone. “With the rise of high-density equipment such as server blades, half the data centres out there are on the way to becoming functionally obsolete within two to three years,” says Michael Bell, research vice president at Gartner.

Centralised business process automation was the motivation for First American Title Insurance, part of First American. “We had 50-plus title and escrow production systems on every single variation of hardware and operating system,” says Larry Godec, CIO of First American Title Insurance. “We were looking to centralise, re-engineer, and automate all that back-office work.”

Discover, analyse, strategise

Lofty goals are great, but enterprises also need to be aware of risks. Consolidation is a potential logistical nightmare that, if poorly managed, can take far too long and be far too disruptive to both IT and the business.

One of the first steps in an effective consolidation is to define what is to be gained and how that serves the long-term goals of the organisation. Is the first objective cost savings, agility, process transformation, disaster recovery, or compliance? Agreement, which should be explicit, requires ongoing communications with upper management and all affected business units.

The next step is to discover and analyse all the affected systems, storage, and applications across the network, understand their interdependencies and staff and their resource requirements, and use that data to build a business case and strategy for consolidation, based on a specific set of objectives.

“Being a statistical agency that was good at surveys, we did a survey in the departments to see what hardware, storage, and backup was out there, and tried to associate full-time employee costs to each of those environments,” says Guy Charron, assistant director of infrastructure services at Statistics Canada, the Canadian government’s statistics-gathering agency. “We also looked at the role each server played in the environment.”

Such fact finding is essential, Gartner’s Bell says. “You need to develop a complete inventory of what you have, what is near the end of life, what you want to retire or replace, what new equipment should you add,” he says. “You also need to decide if you want to maintain a regional network of data centres, due to some unique requirements of each region, or just move to one or two primary data centres and backup facilities.”

Charron credits Statistics Canada’s consolidation success to getting all the parties involved at an early stage. “Each division had representatives participating in building the business case and agreeing on the numbers,” he says. The survey and business case took four to five months.

HP’s Fink puts the psychology succinctly: “Everyone has to think it was their idea and have the metrics to show their boss all that money they saved.”

This is the first part of a two-part article. The second part will be published tomorrow, and linked to here.

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