The federal government is closing hundreds of its data centers in an effort to cut spending, but according to a new report, one consequence of the consolidation is more complexity among the remaining data centers.

The data centers that are left will be running more software applications and critical systems. Sixty percent of federal data centers are running 20 or more operating systems and 48 percent of them are using 20 or more management software applications, according to a survey of 200 federal IT professionals in a poll released this month by the MeriTalk government IT network and sponsored by Juniper Networks. The report is called Consolidation Conundrum.

This complexity could jeopardize the scale and speed of the consolidation, according to MeriTalk’s analysis of the survey findings, and that the federal government needs a solid transition plan to realize its expected budget savings.

In July, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced plans to shut down 373 data centers by the end of 2012, with 800 total on the chopping block by 2015.

“By shrinking our data center footprint we will save taxpayer dollars, cutting costs for infrastructure, real estate and energy,” according to an OMB blog post from July. “At the same time, moving to a more nimble 21st-century model will strengthen our security and the ability to deliver services for less.”

Steve O’Keeffe, MeriTalk’s founder, said the organization’s survey results suggest that the federal government needs a solid plan to migrate its applications.

“If these are mission-critical applications and you close them down, how do you transfer them while maintaining seamless upturn?” O’Keeffe said. “So at this stage in the game, we need a migration and a transition plan.”

The federal government is working on those issues. Outgoing Federal CIO Vivek Kundra released a memo last month announcing that a report on data center consolidation  work under way in each agency will be released Oct. 7. According to O’Keeffe, the report will show where agencies are in the consolidation process and how much money will be saved.

But some agencies are lacking detailed plans for consolidation, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has found. The OMB required the 24 participating federal agencies to submit inventories and consolidation plans by August. Only one of the 24 agencies submitted a complete inventory and no agency submitted a complete plan, the Government Accountability Office reported last month.

O’Keeffe said a factor not being fully considered in federal data center consolidation is that capacity requirements are increasing within federal agencies, as reported in the survey. Respondents reported that federal agencies will require on average 37 percent more computing power over the next five years. Existing data centers are already utilizing 61 percent of their total capacity.

There also appears to be internal skepticism that the OMB will meet its goal of eliminating 800 data centers by 2015. According to the MeriTalk survey, only 10 percent of federal IT professionals said they believed that the OMB would meet its goal. Furthermore, 23 percent of respondents said they believe the federal government will have more data centers in 2015 than there are now.

O’Keeffe said the number of federal data centers may or may not decrease by 2015, depending on how the consolidation proceeds. Placing practical incentives, using industry standards and making IT investments will help with the transition, he said.

“We’re not going to change things by mandate with no piece behind those mandates and throwing out deadlines, which are enormously aggressive without support for those data center [leaders],” O’Keeffe said. The federal government should invest in the quality of its infrastructure and applications, and needs to have clear standards, he said.

MeriTalk currently is leading the Data Center Exchange, a group of IT leaders and stakeholders working to create a best-practice exchange. One of the Data Center Exchange’s future initiatives is to establish a data center consolidation “cookbook” to provide a how-to best practices guide on data center consolidation. The findings will be reported this fall, according to the Data Center Exchange’s website.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.