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How Many Data Centers Does the Government Actually Need?

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The Office of Management and Budget’s new data center policy updates data center closure targets for the federal government, which currently owns and operates some 11,000 data centers.

Though the public comment period for the new Data Center Optimization Initiative passed April 1, comments continue to roll in and it’s not yet clear what OMB’s final policy language will be.

One issue that has been brought up, however, is a clause in the policy directing agencies to “continually strive to close all nontiered data centers." For reference, OMB defines nontiered data centers as those that do not require a separate physical space for IT infrastructure, an uninterruptible power supply, an independent cooling system or a backup power generator. These are far more common across government than tiered data centers.

“Server rooms and closets pose security risks and management challenges and are an inefficient use of resources,” the policy reads. “As such, although at least 60 percent of nontiered data centers are required to be closed before the end of fiscal year 2018, OMB expects that agencies will consider all such facilities as temporary and work to close them.”

GitHub users suggested edits to the policy and called the goal to close all nontiered data centers “untenable.” Based on the definition of a nontiered data center, even a broom closet in a remote location with a server inside qualifies as such. (The Agriculture Department, by the way, closed almost 2,000 such tiny data centers).

Even if OMB modified its definition of a nontiered data center to be slightly less inclusive, it still begs the question: How many data centers does the government really need?

OMB’s closure metrics suggest the government should shutter 52 percent of its entire data center inventory – tiered and nontiered – by the end of fiscal year 2018. That's a lofty goal considering it took agencies five years to close some 3,000 data centers through the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, but some industry experts say the government could do even more.

“The entire federal government could operate on fewer than 1,000 data centers,” Anthony Robbins, vice president of Brocade’s federal business, told Nextgov in a recent interview.

Robbins qualified his remarks not as a criticism of the administration’s recent tech modernization efforts, but as a reflection of the government’s combination of legacy technology and bureaucratic culture. Robbins cited the Homeland Security Department’s success in closing the vast majority of its data centers – saving a lot of money in the process – as evidence that the government’s data center issues have more to do with people than technology.

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