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Data center consolidation best practices: Lessons from the trenches

Eliminate the inconsistencies between facilities with a data center consolidation plan. Enterprises share their experiences and advice for success.

Major multinational companies are consolidating their dispersed data centers in an effort to treat IT as a single global resource.

SBM Offshore, a supplier and operator of oil extraction vessels, had slightly different IT systems and processes at its four main locations and associated sites, said Carlo van de Stoep, group IT director. It underwent a multi-year IT alignment process that resulted in full-fledged, synchronized IT teams in place at each of the four major data centers -- Houston, Monaco, Malaysia and Amsterdam -- and closed a few unneeded data centers.

"If you want to do global business, you have to be one company to your clients," van de Stoep said.

Global semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) found it had a similar problem: 18 data centers and server closets created a spread-out compute footprint and an infrastructure that complicated IT support. "I don't think having 18 data centers really meant IT could deliver more and efficiently," said Andy Bynum, corporate vice president of global infrastructure and operations at AMD.

The company aims to consolidate all its U.S. data centers to a new building in Atlanta and its entire Asia footprint into an existing Malaysian data center by mid-2015.

Consolidation advocates

The enterprises realized data center consolidation benefits: easier internal communications, uniform software for staff working on the same project from different locations and easier interactions with external users. Also, consolidation plans gave AMD the opportunity to "clean house" and drive virtualization, said Bynum. Moving into a new data center with modular bay designs enabled the chip company to showcase its own technologies, using AMD-based IT equipment from subsidiary SeaMicro and Dell Inc. among others, in a facility that also flexibly serves its business needs.

The company wanted a "more professional data center facility," with lower energy use and advanced cooling containment and electrical design, said Jake Dominguez, AMD's CIO. A successful data center consolidation strategy requires stakeholder buy-in and communication.

"You can't roll out new IT systems without getting people on board first," van de Stoep said.

At critical stages in the consolidation process, communication and corporate support pay off.

"You can't possibly over communicate changes. Even to the last minute, you get end users saying they weren't aware of the move," Dominguez said. With a thorough data center consolidation plan, you can minimize this backlash.

SBM's CEO sent the message that it is one united company, with the same processes and tools. For its part, IT has to speak the business's language too. IT needs to be able to support changes in the business, van de Stoep said, and get the point across about why streamlined IT matters.

"You can talk about [IT Service Management], platforms, governance roles, but they'll probably get bored quickly," he said. "You should just say, 'this will keep your data from getting stolen'."

Data center consolidation best practices

The hardest step in launching a data center consolidation plan is finding out what IT equipment you have, Dominguez said, adding that some people are afraid to admit they have systems that exist outside the company's IT asset management system.

AMD included hardware decommissioning as a major facet of its data center consolidation plan, taking out over 70% of the physical hardware from its Austin, Texas, data center. This was done through a combination of increased virtualization and slicing the application portfolio in half before moving everything to the modular facility in Atlanta.

"We could see a lot of redundancy and under-used apps," said Dominguez, yet in 2012, AMD only retired 8% to 12% of corporation applications. "We set the bar at 50% application reduction and asked the organization to come up with a game plan... and kept pushing."

He added that a dashboard with defined metrics kept the IT staff focused on downsizing applications. In the same way, pushing hard on software vendors enabled them to virtualize difficult applications, like SAP, with early tuning and optimization. Along with physical asset shrinkage often comes a software license overhaul. Microsoft and other software licenses had to be global, not local, SBM's van de Stoep said. The company replaced disparate local tools with FrontRange Solutions Inc.'s HEAT IT service management, enabling a de facto 24/7 help desk by aligning support across the four major data centers.

"We strongly believe in local help desk," said van de Stoep, because users appreciate having a person nearby to help them right away. But aligning data centers in multiple time zones meant global coverage on top of that local proximity. "When one time zone goes to sleep, the next one can take over," he said.

Both AMD's Bynum and SBM's van de Stoep advise to leave as little data and specialized applications locally as possible, and only when there's a solid business case to keep it there.

"There's a business need for some applications to remain local to the major [semiconductor fabrication facilities] in Asia, for example," Bynum said. Similarly, van de Stoep noted certain IT functions like software development can occur in just one location, without aligned resources in SBM's other data centers.

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