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NASA's IT redo takes off, guided by tools for data center efficiency

Guided by tools for data center efficiency, NASA transforms its IT infrastructure with a holistic view toward standardized offerings and automated self-service from the help desk.

Deep into an IT transformation based on data center efficiency, Deborah Diaz is going where no man -- or woman -- has ventured before. As deputy CIO at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), she is leading an effort to provide unified communications among desk-bound and mobile workers, as well as standardized IT services that will be available through an automated, self-service portal.

The effort, called the IT integrated infrastructure program, or IP3, is the largest IT program ever undertaken at NASA, and demonstrates its holistic approach to data center efficiency.

"We're looking not just at consolidation, but virtualization, at using geothermal spatial mapping and identifying power footprints," Diaz said. "We plan to not just reduce the number of data centers but to better utilize computing resources."

Under Diaz's leadership, NASA has consolidated 32% of its data centers in the last twelve months, a goal the administration originally set for 2015. Now, she expects NASA to consolidate 66% of its data centers by 2015.

"We recognize the need to spread local innovation across the agency," Diaz said. "We are moving from a system that has historically been center-based, fragmented, customized and stovepiped. Now, NASA's infrastructure and services will be agencywide, consolidated, standardized and collaborative."

Critical to the mission are data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tools that assist in measuring energy use, among other important metrics. NASA uses Power Assure Inc.'s DCIM software to get a view of its power consumption and capacity levels, among other things.

DCIM to expand like the universe

The challenges Diaz and other data center chiefs face when they attempt to achieve data center efficiency have propelled the use of DCIM tools, a broad category from vendors including Power Assure and more than a dozen others, from IBM and VMware Inc. to startups like Viridity Software Inc. in Burlington, Mass.

IDC in Framingham, Mass., has forecast that data center power and cooling costs will go from $25 billion in 2005 to almost $45 billion in 2010. That rise is one reason why Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., expects sales of DCIM tools will grow 60% by 2014.

DCIM tools take a holistic view, as Diaz does, by bringing together into one repository the functions various departments previously oversaw. Facilities, for example, typically used to manage physical space, including power and cooling; the network staff took care of fiber optic and copper cabling, LANs, WANs, and storage area networks (SANs); and systems kept the mainframes, servers and storage up and running.

DCIM tools provide a single pane of glass through which the data center staff can view all parts of the whole. Such visibility reduces the potential for operational confusion and waste -- and is yet another example of how a flatter organization, with transparency among teams, is most effective for IT and business transformation.

As mobile devices and unified communications are pulled together, it will no longer be a question of where individuals are sitting at a desk, but how they can access data from anywhere, anytime.

Deborah Diaz, deputy CIO, NASA

Once a DCIM asset database is built, however, all departments need to follow best practices for change management to maintain a complete and accurate repository, or the DCIM database's value will deteriorate as the system falls into disuse. Most DCIM vendors provide tools to facilitate and enforce these processes to expedite workflow and maintain database accuracy.

Where data center efficiency is the launch pad

With the proper management tools underpinning its consolidated infrastructure, NASA will put itself into a better position to embrace the public cloud infrastructure and mobile devices -- a reality Diaz welcomes, she said.

"As mobile devices and unified communications are pulled together, it will no longer be a question of where individuals are sitting at a desk, but how they can access data from anywhere, anytime," Diaz said.

Such a breakthrough in communications will result in unfathomable amounts of network traffic, so the effort must include not only DCIM tools but such practices as data deduplication as well.

"If we can crack the bandwidth issue, we will break through to a new paradigm that doesn't exist yet," Diaz said.

Some NASA agencies are looking at Apple Inc.'s iPad, to see if they can get rid of their desktops. "People are getting away from the keyboard, getting much more comfortable with the touchpad. It's educational, and supports virtual meetings," Diaz said.

For example, Diaz was able to call into a virtual meeting while she was traveling in Kenya. "The globalization has happened," she said. "Now it's up to the world to take advantage of the possibilities that arise from unified communications."

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

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