In 2008, the Defense Information Systems Agency owned and operated 18 huge data processing centers around the world. Between then and May of this year, DISA reduced the number of those facilities to 10, even as it assumed a steadily increasing level of responsibility for computing within the Defense Department.
The reductions over the past six years only tell part of the story. In 1992, DISA was running 150 computing facilities around the globe. Long before data center consolidation became a hot topic within the federal government, it had already consolidated its operations into mega-facilities known as Defense Enterprise Computing Centers (DECCs). And since 2008, it’s been consolidating even further: The DECC in Huntsville, Alabama was the most recent to close. When DISA turned out the lights there on May 30 and reassigned its employees to other locations, its inventory of big data centers went from 11 to 10, and the agency is leaving open the possibility of closing more DECCs.
There were numerous factors that led to DISA to conclude that it could close data centers like the one in Huntsville without hindering the level of service it provides to DoD components, said Alfred Rivera, who currently serves as DISA’s vice director for strategic planning and until recently oversaw DISA’s data centers. Among them were the realization that it could consolidate functions that were specific to a particular military department into a relative handful of facilities instead of distributing them across the system.
“We wanted to change the way we ran our business, for example, we built functional expertise in certain areas and selected some centers to support specific mission partners. That allowed us to look across the enterprise and see what we could reduce,” Rivera said in an interview. “The second piece was the investment that would be required to get the centers up to the availability and resiliency standards we wanted to meet. Some of them would have just been cost prohibitive with the budgets we had starting back in 2008, so we started shutting those.”
The fact that network bandwidth is much cheaper and much more available today than it was ten years ago has helped too. In a prior era, if DISA needed to host an application with a large base of users at, for example, Fort Gordon, Georgia, it was pretty important to handle that function somewhere in the southeastern United States. That’s less important today: the data center could just as easily be in the Pacific Northwest.
“Proximity of the capability to the customer was basically taken out of the picture,” said David Bennett, DISA’s chief information officer. “The ability to host the capability where made since from a hosting perspective, not necessarily based on where the point of need was allowed us to consolidate and do some things that allowed us to optimize as opposed to having to put a platform at the customer’s front door. We’re able to do things in a smarter fashion to reduce the footprint as well as to provide new capabilities to a variety of different locations, not just a regional view.”
While DISA’s physical data center footprint has been gradually shrinking over the last several years, its responsibilities have been growing. Email is the biggest example to date: five years ago, DECCs generally only processed traffic for DISA’s own email accounts. Today, they handle all email for the Army, the U.S. European Command and the Joint Staff, and a large and growing chunk of the Air Force is already moving its email through DISA’s enterprise email service for a grand total of 1.5 million email users. The ten data centers also host DoD’s Defense Connect Online collaboration platform, which has more than a million users.
“The enterprise services have continued to increase at a fairly significant rate, and we’re able to leverage the DECC infrastructure as a means to support that increased usage and demand without having to increase the number of facilities to support the population,” Bennett said.
Bennett said virtualization is one major factor that’s let DISA close DECCs, since dozens of functions that used to require their own physical server can now be share one piece of hardware. The agency does not have specific plans to close any of its remaining data centers, but he said DISA’s continuing to examine potential sites for consolidation, especially in light of the fact that many of the functions that used to require a human being in a data center can now be managed from hundreds of miles away.
“As we do more and more remote management of capabilities, the need to have specific facilities in place starts to become a variable you can take a look at and ask whether it makes sense to retain a given facility,” he said. “It just creates a shifting dynamic that asks what’s the right mix of capabilities and facilities to meet the customer workload. We also always try to take account of where we see technology taking us and how we can continue to condense capabilities on platforms as well as storage and communications. We’re always looking at all these things to figure out if there’s a smarter, better, cheaper way to do business.”
DISA is likely to see the computing responsibilities of its current data centers increase within the next few years. The data center strategy the Pentagon’s chief information officer has laid out calls for the military services to shed a large amount of their own individual data center capacity and host their applications in “Core Data Centers” (CDCs) that are shared between all of DoD’s components.
Bennett said he expects all of DISA’s DECCs to be designated by the Pentagon as CDCs. That’s already happened for the eight computing facilities in the United States, and for the center in Europe. A decision is still pending for the DISA data center that serves U.S. Pacific Command.
“Each of the DoD components are supposed to be going through a process of application rationalization to reduce the number of applications down to the critical set of systems that are needed to perform their mission. After you go through that process, the next step is to take a look at the capabilities that have a mission that spans more than one installation. Those are the capabilities that are targeted to move to a core data center. So it’s not just an enterprise service that goes to a core data center, it’s really a capability that’s used more widely than at a single location.”
On DoD focuses on the programs and policies that affect the Defense Department. Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks one-on-one and in depth with the people responsible for managing the inner workings of the federal government's largest department, and those who know it best.