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Disaster recovery plan at heart of data center consolidation project

A data center and IT strategy overhaul will give one state a much-needed disaster recovery plan on a green ticket.

The commonwealth of Massachusetts is about to break ground on what it says is the data center of the future: a model of green efficiency, featuring virtualized servers and a disaster recovery plan that -- truth be told -- wasn't there before. The undertaking comes at a time when industry analysts say organizations are spiraling out of virtual control because they lack the automation tools required to achieve the intended cost savings of data center virtualization.

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 When it opens in 2012, the $110 million Springfield, Mass., data center will also help consolidate nearly a hundred IT agencies that currently support eight secretaries reporting to Governor Deval Patrick -- who had hired Anne Margulies, formerly at MIT, as the state's CIO.

The multipronged effort at data center consolidation is "raising the level of IT in government," Margulies said, aware of the scrutiny that results from a "huge budget, enormous scope and 30% budget cuts" and feeling the weight of being watched. "If you wind up with a bad story above the fold in the [newspapers], you're not going to be able to have a strategic role in government" she acknowledged.

To begin, the state developed a Shared Application Infrastructure to "eliminate duplication and increase efficiency" for "common services that support every IT software project," wrote its CTO, Jason Snyder, in a blog in which he likened SAI to an electrical grid in a home.

Normally, government tends to lag business, Margulies pointed out at the recent MIT CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. But the efforts undertaken and lessons to be learned in Springfield will provide a guide for the enterprise, analysts said.

The Big (data) Dig

Coming on board in 2007, Margulies discovered that the state's last strategic plan for technology was crafted four years previously. She described a dramatic underinvestment in technology -- as there had been with roads and bridges -- and created a strategic plan with leaders across the state to assess the nonstandard, sprawling environment. It was "really difficult for us to secure all the important data that we hold," she admitted.

The leaders came to a consensus that the state needed to consolidate into two the 183 data centers that support its agencies and branches. The Springfield data center will serve both as consolidation site and as backup and recovery to the state's primary data center, the Massachusetts Information Technology Center (MITC, known as "Mitzy") in Chelsea, Mass., which houses information ranging from public safety records to tax data.

It's a rather timely effort, given that MITC will be out of capacity in two years, according to a presentation prepared for the state's IT Council meeting last fall. If all goes well, by this time next year, the Springfield data center will back up 40% of MITC's files, which are used by thousands of state workers including police officers, social workers and health professionals, who need immediate access to sensitive information to do their jobs. A second phase of construction at the Springfield center is planned to back up MITC completely while the primary MITC center is modernized by the year 2020.

It was really difficult for us to secure all the important data that we hold.
Anne Margulies
CIOCommonwealth of Massachusetts

 The 115,000-sq. ft. Springfield data center will use renewable and cost-competitive energy sources, as well as automation tools to gain efficiencies. Because it is a work in progress, state IT officials were not ready to detail its green aspects.

Virtualized servers, meet automation tools

To get the most out of its planned green architecture and disaster recovery plan, the state needs automation tools that simplify provisioning and track the use of its servers over a lifetime, according to Mary Johnston Turner, research director for system management software at research company IDC in Framingham, Mass. Turner recently conducted an IDC survey of more than 400 North American IT decision makers that shows many organizations are underinvesting in virtualization management and are missing out on important cost savings and productivity improvements as a result. "The survey indicates that most organizations have a long way to go before they can claim to be operating virtualized environments in a highly efficient manner," she said.

Virtualized servers have become so pervasive that IDC estimates more than half of all workloads will operate inside a virtual machine (VM) by the end of 2010. The dramatic growth has caught some IT departments by surprise, resulting in a server sprawl that threatens to overwhelm system administrators.

"VM sprawl is the problem of creating VMs and doing a poor job of tracking and reclaiming the resources. People track [resources] using spreadsheets, and then lose track of the payloads in the VM -- how long it needs to be there," Turner explained. "There's a lack of rudimentary management going on, and the cost associated with it [means you're] not getting the level of efficiency you thought you were."

The disaster recovery plan is in place, and the cost savings to be gained by consolidating 100 IT agencies and 183 data centers will be significant. What is unclear -- because the state has yet to break ground on the Springfield data center -- is the type of automation and virtualization technology that will be used to achieve and maintain efficiencies in its data centers of the future.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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