Server Virtualization Saves Big Bucks for Feds

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted May 20, 2010


Government waste is something we hear of often. Oftentimes for good reason. It is far rarer to hear about government, especially the Federal government, saving money. Yet that is exactly what is happening with the Green the Capitol initiative, which seeks to to make the U.S. House of Representatives a model of sustainability for the United States. Every aspect of the Capitol, from technology management to the cafeteria, to the heating system, to lights, to fountain water reuse, to storm water runoff management, is being evaluated and retooled for environmental and fiscal soundness.

Virtually Speaking: Server virtualization in the U.S. House of Representatives results in green saving green to the tune of more than $700,000.

Jack Nichols, director, Enterprise Operations Office of the Chief Administrative Officer explained how the House IT staff responded to the mandate. He addressed a crowded room at the Uptime IT Symposium in New York City on Tuesday, where the House of Representatives was a recipient of the Green Enterprise IT Awards for IT Innovation.

Among the goals of Green the Capitol, which came from the Speaker of the House's office several years ago, is the reduction of power consumption in the Capitol facility by 50 percent in the next 10 years. IT, not a small portion of this expense, was able to do it in one year with no additional capital expenditures.

Even more remarkable -- it delivered a savings of $2,000 per day in power and cooling. That's more than $700,000 in taxpayer money saved per year.

Virtualization played a pivotal role in making this possible.

With 441 member offices (that includes 23 committees offices as well as the office of House three officers) and 10,400 employees, in many ways the House's IT needs are similar to those of a midsize enterprise, with two key differences: Unlike most businesses, user numbers don't tend to fluctuate, and there was no centralization of computing resources.

The first difference no doubt made planning and implementing easier, the second was the heart of the problem.

Each of the 441 member offices on the Hill had its own server closet with its own IT policies, staff, software licenses, services contracts and so on. In addition, the main data center for the Capitol was at or near capacity, with little room form expansion, Nichols said. Architecturally, it was a mess as well. Subfloor airflow, for example, was impeded by an ever-expanding volume of cables below.

Despite the green mandate and infrastructure issues, no extra money was available for capital expenditures. All changes would need to fall under the operational expense budget. With careful planning, Nichols rolled out the program over two fiscal years with no additional funds.

To meet all of these requirements, Nichols' team looked beyond the pure green initiative to larger improvements. Consolidation, virtualization and "right sizing" came into play to save money, increase fault tolerance, and add a level of business continuity and disaster recovery. Because of the nature of the data, security was also vital, and in many cases the security implications overrode the desire for green.

To achieve this, Nichols' team brought all of the IT fiefdoms into the main data center and virtualized them. The technical challenges loomed large, but even greater were the cultural issues of consolidation and removing control. Issues similar to those enterprise IT staffs face, though no doubt the possessiveness was stronger.

Here, too an enterprise IT approach was in order, Nichols said. Looking beyond the math of virtualization and consolidation was vital to get everyone on board. Nichols emphasized the criticality of looking at virtualization as more than a math problem, a perspective that is not unique to a government undertaking by any means.

In many cases, businesses processes trump the math, Nichols said. And, indeed, that played a role in the Capitol project. While most of the Unix apps were consolidated, in some cases security in particular overrode the math of utilization. In that case and others, "right-sizing" came into play -- non-virtualized servers were placed on appropriately sized hardware. A 40 percent reduction in equipment was achieved from that alone.

Nichols also said it is important to clarify the redefinition of roles upfront. In a virtualized infrastructure, the sys admin takes on the role that network engineers and security engineers previously played, so it is critical to know who is going to do what. Training the staff was no small undertaking. Nicols said contractors were initially used to train several staff members, who in turn trained other staff members.

Thus far, the effort has been a success on all fronts. Not only have costs been reduced markedly, but power consumption also went down from 500 kilowatts to 125 kilowatts, saving $1,000 per day. This resulted in the power used from cooling decreasing from 750 kilowatts to 350 kilowatts, saving another $1,000 per day.

The initiative has been so successful that it is now expanding beyond the Beltway. More than 200 Representatives' district offices are road mapped to be virtualized. The expectation is that their consolidation, like that of their DC counterparts', will generate a cost savings on services, hardware purchases and support. Despite each office having its own "owner" now, from an IT perspective, once the consolidation is complete, they will be akin to branch offices in the corporate world.

For more on Green IT, check out the Enterprise IT Planet Green IT blog.

Amy Newman is the managing editor of ServerWatch and Enterprise IT Planet. She has been covering virtualization since 2001, and is the coauthor of Practical Virtualization Solutions, published by Pearson in October 2009.

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