Over six years, DISA cuts inventory of large data centers from 18 to 10

Friday - 7/25/2014, 6:08pm EDT

Jared Serbu on In Depth with Francis Rose

Download mp3

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.