Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Saturday, August 13, 2022

Uncle Sam Struggles With Datacenter, Cloud Efforts 

The federal government, in its wisdom, has been trying to consolidate its hodgepodge network of datacenters. The goal is to gain efficiencies in the government operations and, more importantly, save taxpayer money.

A pair of reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office provides a decidedly mixed picture of consolidation efforts as well as federal spending on cloud computing.

An audit of datacenter mergers found that 19 or 24 agencies participating in the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative reported savings estimated at $1.1 billion. However, the government bean counter said actual savings could be much higher, as much $3.3 billion through fiscal 2015, if a handful of agencies had not underreported cost savings and "avoidances."

GAO said in a report released last week it was basing its estimate of underreported savings on six federal agencies that closed 67 datacenters but reported either limited or no savings to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Further, it found that 11 of 21 agencies participating in the datacenter consolidation initiative underreported cost savings for the last three years by an estimated $2.2 billion.

The consolidation effort was launched in 2010 to reverse the growth of federal datacenters and shift IT investments to "more efficient computing platforms." The initiative has helped shift federal IT from custom and expensive datacenters to commercial platforms like Amazon Web Services and others. The effort has targeted billions in savings and a reduction in underutilized infrastructure.

GAO estimates that federal datacenter consolidation could ring up more than $5.3 billion in savings through fiscal 2017 as many federal agencies slowly shift to commercial cloud vendors.

Along with the elimination of small, inefficient datacenters, most federal agencies are reporting cost savings by leveraging cloud technologies, reduced power consumption and facilities costs along with "improvements in asset inventories." However, GAO found that agencies have had difficulty obtaining reliable power usage data as a way to determine overall cost savings.

That, the auditor found, has contributed to the underreporting of savings from datacenter consolidation. Metrics such as power usage and facility utilization are used to determine overall savings. However, those metrics do not address areas like server utilization. The government's goal is at least 60 percent utilization. Prior to the consolidation initiative, server utilization at some federal datacenters was as low as 5 percent.

Despite technology upgrades that have yielded some savings, GAO said the number of federal datacenters continues to grow. As of May 2014, the auditor said the number of U.S. datacenters totaled 9,658 – approximately 6,500 more than reported by OMB in 2011.

To get a better handle on actual savings from federal datacenter consolidation, GAO recommended that the budget office develop a metric for server utilization as a way to gauge cost savings. Then OMB needs to work with federal agencies to accurately report savings. OMB and a dozen agencies agreed with the recommendation, GAO said.

In a separate report released last week, GAO concluded that spending on cloud services at seven federal agencies rose to $529 million over the last two years. However, that total accounted for only 1 percent of the agencies' overall IT spending in 2012. GAO projected that cloud spending among the seven agencies would rise to only 2 percent of their IT budgets in 2014.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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