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Are comatose servers your next big IT headache?

Jonathan Hassell | Aug. 18, 2015
Virtual machine sprawl might be costing your business tens of thousands of dollars. Here’s how you can find out – and what to do about it.

Intel servers data center

Picture this. An executive at your organization gets an idea for a big project, one that adds a new product line to your company and could result in millions of additional dollars in revenue per year. The whole company is gung ho about this. The new mantra each workday is "what are we doing to advance Project X?" Cheers are sung each morning. And, of course, the IT team gets involved and spins up a number of servers, both physical and virtual, to help out the development team and put the new product or service into production.

There's just one thing: All of this happened in 2005. It is now 2015, a full decade later, and Project X has been replaced by Projects Y, Z and Omega. Omega is now hosted up in the cloud, either on Google Compute Engine, Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure. The executive who championed Project X in the first place is long gone, and the original IT team that set up all of the computing power for Project X has transitioned into other teams or out of the company.

Now answer me this: What is the disposition of all of those Project X servers?

It's 8 p.m. Do you know where your servers are?

You probably don't know if you're anything but the smallest of organizations. The authors of a new study on deprecated equipment agree. Jonathan Koomey of Stanford University teamed up with the Anthesis Group to study 4,000 servers and found that up to 30 percent of servers in datacenters are turned on, ready for service, and actively drawing power and consuming resources ... but are not actually doing anything. The study refers to these types of machines as comatose servers, in that the "bodies" are there and working and breathing but, like an unfortunate accident victim who is brain dead, the servers are not actually doing anything.  Previous studies by TSO Logic and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reported much of the same findings.

To get a sense of the cost of the problem, think about how much you could save if you just turned off a third of the hardware that you manage got rid of or re-used the licensing, unplugged the hardware, and liquidated the rest of it. It's a problem with an enormous cost, and even if the study is half wrong, at 15 percent, that's still a significant cost.

Why does this happen? Fundamentally it comes down to the problem of not knowing what you have and what it is doing. It used to be a little easier to keep track of things because in order to roll out new servers, you had to requisition one, send a PO, receive it, inventory it and mark it, so at least you knew what type of silicon you had on your server closet racks. The operating system and software was another story, but at least you had a fighting chance.


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