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7 ways to slash costs with the new data center

Aug 23, 20048 mins
Data CenterOpen SourceSAN

As data centers evolve, businesses say these technologies have helped them cut costs and become more efficient, even as the workload increases.

The new data center, marked by cutting-edge technologies such as virtualization, Web-centric computing and autonomic computing, promises new efficiencies in hardware, software and staffing. But as more organizations move to the new paradigm, cost savings is rising as the prime benefit. Users and analysts say a business can cut overall operational costs anywhere from 25% to 90% with smart implementation of these seven new data center technologies.

1. Storage consolidation.

A good first step when it comes to slashing data center costs is pooling storage using storage-area networks (SAN) or network-attached storage (NAS), experts say.

First, a company must get a handle on the types of storage it has in place – whether direct-attached, SAN or NAS – and calculate the maintenance and operational costs of each. Then, migrate to the most efficient, which in most cases will mean some kind of networked storage, says Johna Till Johnson, president at Nemertes Research and a Network World columnist. Many organizations are still hobbled by inefficient storage architectures, she says.

Such had been the case at American Medical Response (AMR), a medical transportation company in Greenwood Village, Colo. “We had a lot of the servers here in our data center that hadn’t been moved onto the SAN and had their own disk array hanging off them. They were all running at about 40% utilization,” says Jason Brougham, enterprise network manager at AMR. “That means we were wasting terabytes worth of storage and tens of thousands of dollars. When we combined all of that on the SAN we got to pool all of those chunks of storage. It’s a real cost savings.”

The deciding factor on storage architecture should be the cost to manage and maintain it. “NAS can be trickier to manage in some cases,” Johnson says. “Plus, NAS is generally optimized for file storage, so it’s great for archiving. But it doesn’t work so well for database access. You have to look at what’s best for your organization.”

But whatever storage architecture you decide on, the most cost savings come only when it’s implemented beyond the individual department. Johnson recommends appointing a “storage czar” to oversee the corporation. “You need one guy in charge, or at least you want to get everybody together on the same page and have conversations about this. That’s where you really see your costs come down,” she says.

2. Server virtualization.

Most organizations support and maintain a slew of underutilized application servers. The smart moves are server consolidation and deployment of more-efficient technologies such as blade servers or virtualization software.

AMR has seen significant cost savings, especially in terms of hardware and maintenance, by implementing blade servers and virtualization from EMC business unit VMware, Brougham says. “With blades and server virtualization, you quickly find that one server rack can almost run your entire company,” he says. “It’s hard to put a dollar amount on it since every company is different. But I’d say that from rack space alone there’s a huge savings. You don’t have to cool as much space, and you don’t need UPS for as much.”

But as with storage, there are caveats. “With virtualization and consolidation, we’ve got database servers with nine different instances on them. If the SQL server engine stops, all nine databases stop. So change management, patch management, regression testing – all of that stuff becomes more critical,” Brougham says.

3. Data center consolidation.

Once organizations have consolidated storage, servers and applications, they soon find they require less space in their data centers and fewer data centers. That leads to some smart cost-conscious decisions about the data center placement and equipment.

With broadband becoming less expensive and more readily available, organizations can cut costs simply by locating their data centers in rural areas with less-expensive real estate, Johnson says. “Broadband’s getting cheaper and real estate is always getting more expensive, so optimizing the thing that costs a lot but is going to rise, at the expense of the thing that’s decreasing in cost, is a good strategy.”

Others say the key to a cost-effective data center is to take advantage of the recent economic downturn. Steve MacDonald, CIO at Optimus Solutions, a value-added reseller in Norcross, Ga., did just that as he implemented a new 7,000-square-foot data center. The company scoured surplus equipment brokers and hit a sweet deal. “A very large network carrier had equipment on hand from a data center that never got built as the economy soured,” MacDonald says. “We found the company that was helping unload those assets, and literally paid nothing per square foot of data center. We probably saved ourselves easily $50,000 or $60,000 in materials alone. That was enormous cost savings.”

4. Thin-client computing.

Moving to thin-client computing via technologies such as Citrix or Web services also cuts data center costs, especially in terms of support, Brougham says. AMR has more than 250 offices nationwide, some of which are very small. “When you have an office of eight in Mobile, Ala., and your closest support is in Atlanta, it takes days for somebody to get out there and fix a desktop issue with an application or apply the latest patch,” he says. “But with thin client, you just support a Web browser or a Citrix client application and that’s it. We can centrally manage the applications, and that’s a huge savings.”

Most organizations can save 80% of their costs simply by moving to Web services, Johnson says.

5. Open source.

As organizations begin consolidating applications in the new data center, a good cost-saving strategy is migrating to Linux on an application-by-application basis. The more applications an organization supports, the higher its costs, Johnson says. “Organizations should be looking to get rid of the expensive, cumbersome, complex apps, and replacing them with fewer, easier-to-maintain apps.” If they also look to run the newer applications on Linux, that strategy easily can reap cost savings of about 80% to 90%, she says.

Brougham offers one disclaimer: “Linux works fine, and you don’t have to spend the money on an [operating system] license. But you still need something that’s supportable, with a maintenance contract and regular patch revisions and security revisions. I don’t think it’s ready to handle everything yet.” AMR, he says, uses Linux on about 10 of its 350 servers.

6. IP telephony.

At Optimus, MacDonald has reaped a good deal of savings by implementing VoIP on its campus-wide network. “Using VoIP between PBXs, we’re able to leverage three times as many ports per line of PBX,” he says. “And it actually reduces the number of skill sets we need. We trained our data specialists on what little bit of PBX they needed to know and did away with the requirement to have a support staff dedicated to a proprietary PBX. We get more out of our staff as a result.”

Pooling resources is the key with VoIP, Brougham says. “Our No. 1 cost-cutter is IP telephony,” he says. “Once you build this next-generation data center and all of this wonderful infrastructure, you can take all of those PBXs you had in your remote locations, consolidate them into a large IP telephony implementation and pool long-distance, local services, voice mail services – and the support of those. That’s when you really start saving the money.”

7. Autonomic computing.

Another key to cost savings is data center automation, including items such as application provisioning, patch management and security alerting. Concentrating on those areas can help you support new applications and initiatives while keeping staffing levels the same, MacDonald says.

“We look at cost reduction from a manpower standpoint,” he says. “We’re focusing on getting a greater degree of sophistication in systems monitoring and systems notifications via the NetIQ application manager platform”

Also under evaluation are patch management tools from St. Bernard Software and Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Update Server, he says. “The whole idea is to reduce the amount of activity of the IT staff, taking something that probably took three to eight hours in the past and reducing it down to about an hour of quick testing and evaluation prior to rolling out a new patch.”

Implementing any of these technologies will slash data center costs. “A good rule of thumb is that people should do something in IT if the cost savings is 25% or more compared to what they’re currently doing,” Johnson says. “And all of these things will give you at least a 25% cost savings.”

Cummings is a freelancer writer in North Andover, Mass. She can be reached at