A Plan to Bring IT All Together

Server consolidation can reduce computing costs, but you'll need patience and a strategy.

Most IT managers would kill to be where Golden Gate University chief technology officer Anthony Hill found himself a year ago. Thanks to rising enrollment and an initiative at the San Francisco school to move most classes online, Hill, unlike many of his colleagues these days, was overseeing an IT budget that was growing.

As Hill quickly learned, however, managing rapid growth brings its own challenges. To keep up, Hills group found itself buying servers and adding applications faster than they could figure out how to manage it all. Before long, 75 percent of his growing budget was going toward managing and building out the IT infrastructure, and only 25 percent was going toward application development.

Finally, faced with managing 12 production databases, multiple operating systems and three ERP (enterprise resource planning) suites, Hill decided he needed a consolidation strategy that would not only reduce the number of servers and associated maintenance but also eliminate the complexity of his computing environment.

Hill is now moving to reduce the number of servers his organization supports from 45 to 20 and to standardize on Linux and Oracle Corp.s Oracle9i database.

Driven by the need to lower total cost of ownership while improving service and availability, many organizations are, like Golden Gate University, now focusing on server consolidation. A recent survey of IT managers by Gartner Inc., based in Stamford, Conn., found 69 percent of enterprises were trying to consolidate servers in 2001, up from 36 percent in 1998.

IT managers from organizations such as Golden Gate University, the U.S. Air Force Mobility Command Center and Select Comfort Corp. say the benefits of server consolidation include better systems management and lower operating costs. To achieve those cost benefits, many organizations—in addition to replacing many servers with fewer, easier-to-manage large boxes—are standardizing on operating systems, server platforms and databases.

Consolidating servers, however, can be as complex as the computing environments with which IT managers are trying to grapple. Consolidation projects often take longer than expected to deliver projected savings and can entail many unexpected costs, experts warn. Moving to larger servers, for example, can result in big jumps in software license costs. And moving to big, centralized servers can require network bandwidth upgrades and more extensive outlays for backup and high-availability protection. As a result, IT managers planning consolidation projects should be careful about setting expectations, experts say.

"The main driver for consolidation is that people believe they can save a lot of money by consolidating, which may or may not be true," said Gartner analyst John Phelps. "Make sure proper expectations are there. Look at the upfront costs, because it costs to start forming a project, and how long it will take to recover those costs. What will you do with the servers once youve consolidated? Will you save money on them? These issues will impact what kind of consolidation goes on."

Before entering into a major server consolidation effort, experts say, IT managers need to look at what theyre trying to accomplish—whether, for example, high costs are driven by hardware acquisition or management. Then they should look at what kind of consolidation makes sense for their organization. While some organizations will work on logical consolidation—managing many servers in a standard, unified way—to gain control of their computing environments, others will physically consolidate data centers. The most ambitious of enterprises, such as Golden Gate University, will do physical and logistical consolidation. (See an analysis of the different approaches to server consolidation.)

While mainframe server and workload consolidation has been commonplace for years, the focus today is shifting to distributed platforms and server consolidation for Unix and Windows systems. Vendors are now offering an increasing number of technologies and services to aid in the effort.

Virtualization technologies from companies such as VMware Inc. and Connectix Corp. help enterprises handle workload management and partitioning on Intel Corp. platforms.

Microsoft Corp., which provides server consolidation tips on its Web site, will release its own workload management product, Windows Systems Resource Manager, in Windows Server 2003 this year.

On the hardware side, companies such as Dell Computer Corp., IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. offer a variety of services, software and online tools designed to help IT managers plan their consolidation efforts on mainframe and Unix platforms.