Server consolidation: the best of all worlds

Butler Group says planned consolidation will deliver benefits to the enterprise.


Butler Group says planned consolidation will deliver benefits to the enterprise.



In the early years of enterprise computing the centralised mainframe held sway. With the advent of more powerful desktop PCs in the late 1980s client/server architecture became popular.

More recently, distributed computing has become prevalent, with the focus on localised processing power and storage and a one-server/one-application strategy.

However, this increasingly complex and often heterogeneous environment is difficult and expensive to manage. Escalating operational costs, inflexible infrastructure, difficulties in meeting service levels and erratic data security and integrity add to the disadvantages. Butler Group believes the resultant number of servers and storage devices found in most enterprises is out of control and unsustainable in the long term.

The consolidation of servers and storage and the adoption of a more centralised approach can bring significant benefits, reduce system administration overheads, ease data management and simplify infrastructure.

Benefits will differ from one enterprise to another and are dependent on the demands of the business and the rationale for consolidation in the first instance.

Any change to the IT infrastructure constitutes a risk, and consolidation is no exception. Consolidation initiatives should be tackled with a degree of forethought as they can affect staff, cause capacity problems and add to security concerns. A flexible pool of resources supporting a service-centric approach must be part of an IT department's armoury in evolving to an optimised infrastructure.

The emerging technologies that must begin to be integrated into the environment include utility and on-demand computing, virtualisation and automation. A consolidated environment helps IT management make judicious use of services from external providers to reduce fixed costs, help with workloads or fill gaps in knowledge.

Business issues

IT operational costs have a direct impact on the bottom line. Simplifying the systems infrastructure through consolidation can bring significant financial benefits such as lower overheads, staff costs, licensing charges and maintenance costs, with fewer, smaller data centres.

In an attempt to increase revenue, the IT industry has latched on to the fact that most consolidation projects can be self-financing and justifiable on monetary returns alone. The expected reduction in the total cost of ownership can free up funds for investment in new developments.

However, Butler Group advises IT managers to resist these advances and take time to understand the existing environment and making the most of current system assets before embarking on any new investments. Any savings can fund upgrades as and when equipment has been depreciated, or finished its useful life.

While it is imperative that costs are controlled, it is important not to lose sight of other benefits. A consolidation initiative should be used as an opportunity to align IT infrastructure with enterprise strategy, ensuring business value by meeting any demands today and in the future.

Enterprise-wide projects, such as customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and supply chain systems, are often thwarted by the inflexibility of the existing distributed architecture.

The efficiencies of scale generated from consolidation can give savings on the total cost of ownership and also improve server and storage utilisation and scalability. This can cater for peaks in workload without recourse to additional resources.

More importantly, a centralised infrastructure puts an IT department in a better position to become a provider of services, both internally and externally.

Enterprises are becoming increasingly reliant on information and systems are under growing threat from malicious attack. While consolidating systems might seem like putting all your eggs in one basket, centralisation allows the implementation of uniform procedures for access, use and maintenance, and to lock-down physical equipment in secure data centres. Centralisation does, however, focus attention on business continuity and high availability, all of which need to be taken care of, usually at additional cost.

Disaster recovery is also becoming a growing problem for IT management. Information distributed throughout the organisation on direct-attached devices makes it increasingly difficult and costly to maintain effective back-up and recovery processes. A consolidated data solution with automated back-up and Raid subsystems can improve dependability and eliminate the need for human intervention.

Technology issues

It could be argued that consolidation is 90% process and only 10% technology, with the required changes usually encompassing all aspects of the IT operation, including hardware, software, networks, personnel, procedures and processes.

This is often a complex issue because of the heterogeneous IT environment many enterprises have inherited. Organisations tend to concentrate on the obvious server sprawl with most service providers promoting conso-lidation as one the first steps along to a phased deployment. Butler Group believes this is too simplistic and advocates a more holistic approach with other consolidation methods such as centralisation, data integration and mixed workloads.

But before organisations can contemplate any IT infrastructure optimisation initiative it is imperative that asset and inventory management processes and common management tools are put in place. It is no good starting consolidation without a clear picture of the current environment to measure against.

Butler Group does not sign up to the ethos touted by IT suppliers with sizeable service arms to support that large one-off projects are the way forward. We strongly argue that system assessment and planning should not simply be the first phase of a consolidation project, as advocated by all the major suppliers, but must be integrated into ongoing management with continual improvement on a day-to-day basis.

Where an enterprise does not have the required skills in-house these should be bought in on an ad hoc basis to meet any specific assessment or planning needs. Once the requirement for system consolidation has been identified and included in the overall IT plan, the deployment phase can be treated as a project and outsourced if necessary.

The emergence of network-attached storage and storage area network technologies presents an opportunity too good for IT management to miss: to get corporate information, the lifeblood of the organisation, under control.

It is not the fixed costs that present the problem but the insidious rise in variable overheads such as costs for access, management, back-up and the protection of data.

Butler Group believes that both storage technologies have their merits and should be chosen to meet the specific needs and circumstances of each enterprise.

System consolidation can have unforeseen consequences. Network bandwidth can quickly become an issue and may have a influence on whether the deployment is ultimately deemed a success. Although additional administration savings can be achieved when upgrading the network for increased traffic, it is also enhanced to cater for voice, data, video and fax.

The most significant impact of consolidation is that it creates a central IT system. As a consequence, performance issues and equipment problems have a direct impact on all the enterprise's critical applications.

Mark Blowers and Sue Clarke are analysts at Butler Group

Taken from Server and Storage Consolidation, a Butler Group report

Other Butler Group papers are at

Why consolidate?

  • Company-wide IT system can be simpler to manage and deliver consistent levels of service at best value
  • Costs can be contained and economies of scale extracted, including better control of overheads
  • Data management and legal compliance is easier and the introduction of new systems can be made simpler
  • Company data can be held in a secure environment.

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