The U.S. federal government, always full of surprises in recent weeks, landed another one a couple of months back. It's well-publicized data center consolidation effort, launched in 2010, hasn't really reduced the size of the constellation of federal data centers. In fact, it appears there are 5,000 more federal data centers than when the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI) was launched in 2010. Despite all the work being done to move to cloud and virtualization, data centers keep multiplying.

The reasons for the surprising surge are varied but seem to boil down to a focus on hardware vs. applications, uncertain definitions of what constitutes a “data center,” and that age-old gremlin known as organizational resistance.

There's no doubt that every CIO — and CFO, for that matter — wants to see more consolidation within their data centers or server farms. But there's always the question of what, exactly, will be replacing those rows of server racks, and how new build-outs of infrastructure can be restrained to avoid having more sprawl than what the company started with.

Forrester analyst Doug Washburn has a few ideas on how to reduce data centers in a smart way, and keep them that way. In a recent post, he points out that future consolidations will place applications front and center (versus servers and technology silos), bring in software-defined infrastructure (which enables provisioning and control via an abstracted service layer, via directly fiddling with hardware), and commence with hybrid cloud.

“For too long, IT infrastructure has aligned to silos of technology, resulting in complexity, low satisfaction, poor communication and wasted money,” he illustrates, urging that data centers be designed around applications, and not vice versa." The software-defined infrastructure opportunity, he adds, is actually the sum total of virtualization, automation and orchestration.

He lays out the steps that should be addressed in a consolidation effort:

- Define the vision and build a business case.

- Develop a strategic plan and road map.

- Act on the strategy. Part of this stage also involves a skills assessment.

- Benchmark and measure results, and instill a culture of continuous improvement.

The key takeaway here is that the IT operation needs to be viewed as a business in its own right, and the challenge of consolidation approached as it would if the business itself were being pared down.

Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.

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