Federal Effort to Reduce Datacenter Count Hits a Snag

It’s beginning to look as if the federal government’s effort to save billions by closing a third of its datacenters is actually going in reverse—and Congress isn’t happy about it.

Members of congress grilled officials responsible for the consolidation effort in a series of July 25 hearings, following the release of a report from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimating that the total number of federal datacenters is actually greater than 7,000, rather than the 6,000 it reported in May, the 3,133 datacenters it counted in 2011, or the 2,100 it claimed when the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI) was launched in February 2010.

The admission, presented by Dave Powner, Director of IT Management Issues at the GAO, rankled members of the committee, especially following a rule change in June designed to give government-agency CIOs a better handle on their own technology and the GAO a better chance to account for it.

“In April 2013, we were told there were 3,133 data centers. Now we’re told it’s over 7,000—that’s kind of a slight miscalculation,” said John Mica, (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations.

Changes in the total count of datacenters in May and July were due to an altered definition of what constitutes a datacenter, and better integration of the systems used by OMB to count and keep track of them, according to the report (PDF). A total of 484 datacenters had been closed by April of 2013, with another 571 were scheduled to be closed by September of 2014.

The total number of remaining datacenters has continued to change because each of the 24 agencies involved in the consolidation effort has historically used its own definition of “datacenter” and method of counting. In 2012, for example, the total count of federal datacenters rose by 2,200 after the Department of Agriculture began counting each field office with a single server as a datacenter location.

The GAO and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have tried to standardize reporting and definitions, but have been only partially successful. Under previous specifications, agencies were able to divide the assets in a single datacenter into pieces to avoid being counted, according to testimony from U.S.  CIO Steven VanRoekel. Tightening the definitions made the count more reliable, but multiplied the overall numbers.

Datacenters will now be divided into “core” and “non-core” categories to reflect the difference between a datacenter and a server closet, VanRoekel added.

Better counting procedures don’t accelerate closures, however. The General Services Administration, for example, had closed only one datacenter during the past three years, though the agency has plans to shutter 38 before the end of fiscal 2013 in September, and 47 more by the end of fiscal 2014, according to testimony from Dave McClure, associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.

Both the closure rate and GSA’s decision to send someone other than the agency CIO to report to Congress both set bad examples for the rest of the government, according to Mark Meadows, (R-N.C.). “We have a whole bunch of people that come and give testimony, but really don’t have responsibility for implementing those things. Hearing after hearing and nothing gets done,” Meadows complained after McClure said the GSA’s director and CIO are ultimately responsible for its accounting and its closure rate.

The latest count puts the number of federal datacenters at 6,836, but information from the Dept. of Defense is ambiguous enough that the real total is probably over 7,000.

Mica asked OMB’s Powner if that estimate is the final one.

“I wouldn’t put my money on it,” Powner said.


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