Considerations, Assumptions and Expectations

By Bob Violino  |  Posted 11-04-2008

Infrastructure Consolidation: 6 Tips for Success

IT infrastructure consolidation has become a priority for many organizations--and the sluggish economy is accelerating the trend. As economic woes linger, CIOs continue to look for ways to rein in technology components such as servers, storage, desktop computers, networks and mobile devices.

However, like any other big technology initiative, there's a right way and wrong way to consolidate. Do it the right way, and companies can save money, reduce energy consumption and improve efficiencies. Do it the wrong way, and they might wish they'd never started consolidating in the first place.

Most IT organizations have either launched consolidation projects or plan to initiate them, according to Forrester Research. Nearly 60 percent of 246 IT executives the firm surveyed in August 2007 said they had either completed or were actively executing an IT consolidation effort that involved servers, storage or an entire data center. Another 36 percent said they were considering a consolidation effort. Of those organizations considering an upcoming consolidation, 76 percent said they planned to begin within the next six months. That means that, at this point, almost nine in 10 businesses are knee-deep in consolidation projects.

As can be expected with such a wide-ranging task as infrastructure consolidation, the drivers for those projects vary greatly. Forrester found that the prime motivations for data center consolidation include im-proving operational efficiency, reducing complexity, enhancing operational staff productivity, reducing power costs, addressing disaster recovery inefficiencies, consolidating application workloads onto fewer servers and reducing overall data center costs.

Nevertheless, the study shows that consolidation is no quick-fix project: Nearly half of the survey respondents said they expected their IT consolidation to take between one and two years to complete.

This effort can pay off with significant benefits. Chris Curran, partner and CTO at Diamond Management and Technology Consultants, points to reduced costs due to a standardized technical environment, increased hardware utilization and decreased hardware footprint; increased agility through data center automation; and increased availability through greater uptime and disaster recovery capabilities.

CIOs and industry experts point to several tips and best practices for consolidating IT infrastructure:

Know your applications and understand how they apply to your organization.
"The main point with infrastructure consolidation is that it must be done within the context of an application architecture," Curran says. "An organization has to know which applications align with the business strategy and direction and which don't; which should be retired and when; and what kinds of functional gaps exist in the systems."

With that knowledge, IT executives can plan proactively to retire some applications and consolidate the underlying infrastructure in a coordinated fashion. Without it, they can run into a variety of obstacles, such as unplanned outages or poor system performance in the consolidated systems.

Curran says that a Diamond client in the insurance industry conducted massive and successful server and storage consolidation only after it had completed a broad IT strategy project that included setting priorities for its applications and developing an application blueprint.

The IT department of a Diamond client in the financial services sector that was spending more than $30 million per year on storage was asked by business executives what value the firm was getting for that technology--and how costs could be reduced. "At the time, they didn't have a business-driven set of projects and capabilities related to data, so answering that question was hard," Curran says. "Consolidation was virtually impossible without shooting themselves in the foot regarding future needs the business might have. (Curran declined to name either client because of his firm's relationship with them.)

Determine Goals Before Launching Project

Determine where you're going with infrastructure consolidation before you start the journey.
"Don't start implementing consolidation before you have developed the future state architecture and roadmap and have mobilized appropriately," Curran says. "Whenever you reprioritize or consolidate, it's important that you have a target [infrastructure] into which the consolidated hardware, software and labor will be organized."

Diamond usually calls the multisystem end state an architecture design. "Many organizations use the term 'architecture' to describe the purely technical design of how boxes, wires and system software are installed and laid out," Curran says. "In order to do a proper software consolidation, the architecture design must also consider the business capabilities planned for the upcoming 12, 24 and 36 months, related business functions, gaps in existing application software, etc."

End-state systems architectures can serve as good visual tools to have discussions about functional and technical gaps, prioritization in consolidation efforts and infrastructure planning, he adds.

In addition to plotting out an architecture map for the consolidated infrastructure environment, it's a good idea to evaluate existing processes and organizational roles to see how they might be affected by consolidation.

Brad Manning, CIO at Quaker Chemical, a Conshohocken, Pa., chemicals manufacturer, says large organizations should look at organizational design and IT process flows before consolidating: "Ensure that the infrastructure organization is not fractured and reports up through a central vice president or director. Ensure that processes that need to be revamped are done alongside the infrastructure consolidation effort."

Deploy virtualization software as a way to eliminate physical IT components.
In recent years, few technologies have gained as much attention from IT executives as virtualization--perhaps with good reason. Virtualization can lead to more efficient provisioning of resources, increased flexibility, lower costs and reduced energy consumption. Organizations can apply virtualization to servers, storage systems and desktop computers--each of which can help with consolidation efforts.

With server virtualization, servers can be provided as "pools" of logical computing capacity. Virtualized servers are divided into multiple virtual devices and can run multiple operating systems and applications as if they were running on physically separate machines.

Storage virtualization lets organizations create large pools of storage, so several physical storage networks or systems can be used as one large repository of data managed from one location. And desktop virtualization allows desktop operating environments to be hosted on servers, so users can interact with the desktop remotely, usually through a thin client device.

"Virtualization is a significant component of the technical environment of the future," says Diamond's Curran. He adds that its successful implementation requires knowledge of how each application uses server and storage resources, because it allows a business to perform an impact analysis and minimize disruption to users.

Charles Christopherson, CFO and CIO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also cautions that virtualization requires doing some homework. "Many [USDA] agencies want to virtualize their network because they believe it will lead to lower costs and less work," he says. "However, as in all IT implementations, virtualization is not a quick-fix solution."

Once the systems are consolidated in a data center and applications are reviewed, Christopherson says, the appropriate applications can be moved to a virtualized stack using accepted policies implemented by highly trained workers.

The USDA is in the midst of a data center consolidation project that involves gradually consolidating systems (including application servers in more than 3,000 locations around the country that are used for farm programs) to four or five enterprise data centers. The key goals of the project--in which server virtualization plays a major role--are to increase security, reduce costs, improve IT support and reduce energy consumption.

Prior to the establishment of enterprise data centers, the key USDA metrics for IT were data center uptime and customer satisfaction. Now, all enterprise data centers are required to have security patches for vital equipment in place within a specified period of time; to conduct an annual inspection on the conditioning of power sources and the flow of air conditioning; and to maintain a certain level of protection for critical equipment.

Virtualization in the data centers will enable the USDA to improve server utilization rates and reduce the number of servers by 30 percent to 40 percent.

Virtualization technology has matured enough to make it a "no-brainer decision," says Quaker Chemical's Manning, who adds that he "would not consider a consolidation project today without using virtualization." He says the technology is mature on the server and storage side, but desktop virtualization is still evolving and should be closely evaluated in a consolidation project.

Quaker Chemical launched a virtualization initiative when its key servers were coming off a lease and it faced the choice of updating the servers or adopting virtualization. The move to virtualization helped the company achieve more efficient use of its server and storage resources and related cost savings.

Considerations, Assumptions and Expectations

Consider consolidating data storage and implementing a storage area network prior to server virtualization and consolidation.
Before implementing a server virtualization strategy that would enable it to consolidate physical servers, Ruby Tuesday, a restaurant chain based in Maryville, Tenn., examined its data storage operations to see what could be eliminated and then deployed a storage area network to help reduce its need for SQL servers.

"If you don't need it, don't store it," states Nick Ibrahim, CIO at Ruby Tuesday. "You must have a very good data warehouse where you store only what you need for today and for the future."

The process of consolidating Ruby Tuesday's storage required a storage consolidation team to go through each department--including legal, finance and human resources--to see which data could be eliminated and which needed to be retained for regulatory or business reasons.

The undertaking was both time-consuming and labor-intensive, but it worth the effort, according to

Ibrahim. "You have to have the data purging process," he says, adding that anything kept should help the business or be required by law--otherwise data should not be stored in a storage area network.

Ruby Tuesday had acquired a large number of SQL servers over the years as the business grew. "With client-server, people used to throw in server after server after server," Ibrahim recalls. The company's subsequent IT managers were hesitant to remove those servers in case they might be needed at some point.

Following its storage consolidation, Ruby Tuesday installed a SAN, from which virtualized servers would boot. In a virtual environment, Ibrahim says, businesses have to be able to access the data in the same physical space in case a server crashes. Virtual environments balance loads in processing, so they have to be able to see the storage area network and share the processing. "If each server has its own space, it will not be feasible to use virtual servers," he explains.

About a year ago, Ruby Tuesday launched its server virtualization initiative in its data center using VMware software. That enabled the company to consolidate 130 servers into just four.

The benefits? Better performance and ease of management, according to Ibrahim. Furthermore, energy consumption is down in Ruby Tuesday's data center because of the drastic reduction in physical servers, and the company has greater flexibility because it can allocate server capacity as needed. "Virtualization allowed this, but you need to have a SAN to access data," he says.

Don't assume one technology solution or approach will work in all cases and for all departments.
Organizations might be tempted to emulate what others are doing to consolidate their IT infrastructure--by deploying some type of virtualization, for example. Yes, virtualizing servers, storage systems and desktop devices can help reduce the number of infrastructure assets, but the technology is not for everyone.

"Just because server virtualization is the most common means of achieving consolidation gains, it's not a hammer for every proverbial nail," says James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester. "Some workloads are better consolidated onto newer hardware but kept as physical deployments."

Virtualization is a key tactic for achieving higher resource utilization and a primary means of consolidation, Staten says. But it shouldn't be seen as the be-all and end-all. Other tactics--including physical consolidation, improved processes, standardization, and simply turning off and retiring applications and servers that are no longer needed--also should be used.

Also, CIOs should not assume that all business units or internal groups will automatically go along with IT infrastructure consolidation projects, even if these plans promise cost savings and other benefits for the organization as whole. "Some won't--and for justified reasons," Staten says. CIOs will need to win over these groups by demonstrating how consolidation will help the business.

Organizations should always conduct a thorough asset inventory and performance analysis so they can develop a complete picture of all the IT assets they have and how best to consolidate them, he says.

Don't set expectations too high.
To successfully pull off an IT infrastructure consolidation, CIOs will undoubtedly need ongoing support from senior business executives, line-of-business heads and other senior executives, such as the CFO. The best way to get--and keep-- that support is to meet established objectives.

In planning how long an infrastructure consolidation project will take, Staten cautions that IT must be careful not to set timelines that are too aggressive. "When you roadmap your consolidation timeframe, be conservative with business constituents so you set expectations that you can beat," he says. "This gets them behind you for later phases of consolidation, which you will need, because IT consolidation is often a very political change."

Another thing to avoid is overestimating the cost savings of a consolidation effort. Organizations can save 20 percent of more via consolidation, Forrester has found, but those savings often come with higher software costs, flat staffing and a big upfront investment.

Staten says that the most common type of saving organizations attain from consolidation efforts is cost avoidance, such as not having to buy as many new servers each year. "But, often, all the other cost categories are minimally affected," he says.

It's wise to lay out the potential benefits of consolidation at the beginning, Quaker Chemical's Manning says. Consolidation initiatives usually include a series of projects over multiple years, so it's important to get justification for the entire effort up front.

"As each new project starts, it's difficult to show a justification for that project by itself," Manning says. "The benefits are realized when all the pieces are in place, so you can refer to the original justification each time you go for funding after that point."

Manning tries to avoid using only a return on investment justification for consolidation. Instead, he uses an ROI argument combined with a risk management line of reasoning. That way, he shows that consolidation provides not only a cost savings benefit, but also a disaster recovery benefit.

"This can help keep the project alive in tough economic times, like the ones we have right now, when the ROI cutoff line gets drawn a bit higher," he says.

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