Agencies face tall order in closing data centers

Correction: An earlier version of this story said there were around 6,000 federal data centers. In fact, the latest GAO estimate says there are about 7,000 data centers. This version has been corrected.

July 28, 2013

In 2010, there were 2,100. Then the number jumped to 3,000. Today, there are around 7,000 — but no one knows for sure.

Three years into the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, there is still no official count of data centers, no publicly available agency goals and no agreed upon way to measure savings.

Even the term “data center” is a moving target, making it impossible to get an accurate count of existing facilities or create realistic goals for reducing them. Indeed, the sharp increase in the number of centers over the past three years is mostly because of changes in the way they are defined.

Historically, federal data center consolidation initiatives have only garnered minor success.

During the Clinton administration, the Office of Management and Budget attempted to reduce the government’s data centers — then numbering only 200 — to 50, with projected savings of 30 to 50 percent. A few agencies made temporary reductions, but the number of federal data centers still skyrocketed between 1998 and 2010.

Agencies face multiple obstacles in data center consolidation, including unrealistic time lines, lack of funding and cultural and political challenges.

Even so, agencies are plugging away and have achieved some success. As of April, the Defense Department had closed 87 data centers, resulting in $575 million in savings. The Department of Homeland Security has reduced its existing data centers from 46 to two geographically separate facilities that offer shared services.

However, the consolidation initiative’s goals might be reached faster if the government set clear goals for each agency and used agreed upon metrics for determining the number of data centers and measuring savings.

Because of the limited public information, it’s difficult for government contractors to identify agency needs. The best way for companies to pursue this market is to make use of existing relationships with federal agencies to assess their needs. Contractors can also seek to help agencies optimize the data centers they want to keep and shed the ones they don’t.

Angie Petty is a senior principal analyst at Herndon-based Deltek, which conducts research on the government contracting market and can be found at www.deltek.com.

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