What kind of data center can you build with $500 million?

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So, if the government gave your company $500 million to spend on building a new data center what would you buy and how would you build it? Well, the Social Security Administration is about to find out.

As part of the stimulus bill, or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the SSA got the tidy little sum to replaces its National Computer Center. The SSA in fact says it will need closer to $800 million to fund a new IT infrastructure, including the new data center-the physical building, power and cooling infrastructure, IT hardware, and systems applications. (This is addition to a $72 million backup facility currently under construction in Durham, North Carolina).

The current data enter, is 30 years old after all and it supports the backbone of the agency's automated operations, which are the lifeblood to sorting out the earnings and benefits worth some $680 billion for almost 55 million Americans.

In justifying such stimulus money the SSA said it needs to replace the facility to provide more current processing capabilities and support the current and growing requirements of a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week electronic service delivery operation. The agency has decided that building a new facility will let it address limitations in the current facility, such as power supply and grid problems, as well as the presence of aging water pipes running in the same area as the equipment wiring. At the same time, the agency plans to move to more modern database technology to replace current systems, which still contain about 36 million lines of COBOL code!

With that in mind, the Government Accountability Office this week took a look at the  SSA's data center plans and warned that while IT investments can improve  organizational performance, they can also become risky, costly, unproductive ventures that do not yield intended results. 

The GAO, wary of government project cost bloat, made some broad recommendations for how the new data center should be structured.  The suggestions include:

IT strategic planning. A foundation for effective modernization, strategic planning is vital to create an agency's IT vision or roadmap and help align its information resources with its business strategies and investment decisions. An IT strategic plan, which might include the mission of the agency, key business processes, IT challenges, and guiding principles, is important to enable an agency to consider the resources, including human,  infrastructure, and funding, that are needed to manage, support, and pay for projects. For example, a strategic plan that identifies interdependencies within and across modernization projects helps ensure that these are understood and managed, so that projects-and thus system solutions-are effectively integrated. Given that the new data center is to form the backbone of SSA's automated operations, it is important that the agency identify goals, resources, and dependencies in the context of its strategic vision.

Enterprise architecture. An enterprise architecture consists of models that describe (in both business and technology terms) how an entity operates today and how it intends to operate in the future; it also includes a plan for transitioning to this future state. More specifically, it describes the enterprise in logical terms (such as interrelated business processes and business rules, information needs and flows, and work locations and users) as well as in technical terms (such as hardware, software, data, communications, and security attributes and performance standards). It provides these perspectives both for the enterprise's current environment and for its target environment, as well as a transition plan for moving from one to the other. In short, it is a blueprint for organizational change. Using an enterprise architecture is important to help avoid developing operations and systems that are duplicative, not well integrated, unnecessarily costly to maintain and interface, and ineffective in supporting mission goals.

IT investment management. An agency should establish and follow a portfolio-based approach to investment management in which IT investments are selected, controlled, and monitored from an agencywide perspective. In this way, investment decisions are linked to an organization's strategic objectives and business plans. Such an approach helps ensure that agencies allocate their resources effectively. Projects funded under the act are to avoid unnecessary delays and cost overruns and are to achieve specific program outcomes and improved results on broader economic indicators. Robust investment management controls are important tools for achieving these goals. For example, developing accurate cost estimates-an important aspect of investment management- helps an agency evaluate resource requirements and increases the probability of program success.

Information security. For any organization that depends on information systems and computer networks to carry out its mission or business, information security is a critical consideration. It is especially important for government agencies like SSA, where maintaining the public's trust is essential. Information security covers a wide range of controls, including general controls that apply across information systems such as access controls and contingency planning and business process application-specific controls to ensure the completeness, accuracy, validity, confidentiality, and availability of data. For the data center initiative, security planning and management will be important from the earliest stages of the project through the whole life cycle.  Further, because a data center is the backbone of an organization's operations and service delivery, continuity of operations is a key concern. Data centers need to be designed with the ability to efficiently provide consistent processing of operations. Even slight disruptions in power can adversely affect service delivery. Data centers are vulnerable to a variety of service disruptions, including accidental file deletions, network failures, systems malfunctions, and disasters. In the design of a data center, continuity of operations needs to be addressed at every level-including applications, systems, and businesses.

Seems like a start, but how will all this actually manifest itself? What would you do?

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