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How to avoid a data center overrun with idle servers

Andy Patrizio | Nov. 10, 2015
A third of data center servers are not productive. Here's why the problem exists, and what to do about it.

You've undoubtedly read, or at least seen the articles talking about "comatose" servers, servers in data centers that don't do any work and just sit idle. A study from Stanford University professor Jonathan Koomey and Jon Taylor, a partner at the consulting firm Athensis Group found that up to 30% of all physical servers in data centers do nothing all day long and no one notices.

This is not a new discovery; it has been around for several years. In 2008, McKinsey & Co. released a similar study, finding that up to 30% of servers in data centers were as they put it "functionally dead." The Uptime Institute issued a similar report in 2012, finding around 30% of servers to be idle and not working.

So why does this problem continue to go unaddressed? Two reasons: the IT group does not have responsibility for the electric bill and IT does a lousy job tracking ownership of the servers once deployed. It buys the servers but doesn't pay the electric bill or keep a proper inventory and that allows zombies to proliferate.

"It's a case of management and a challenge to management and an issue of lack of incentives. In a lot of cases IT people are incentivized to keep things up and running and aren't paying the power bill. They have no incentive to lower their power bill," said Taylor.

Aaron Rallo, CEO of TSO Logic, echoed the sentiment that it's a management problem. "I've built data centers and needed them for every business I've run. When you think about business priorities, I think a lot of executives view their data center as a process that they can't do anything about and let the data center slide from an expense perspective," he said.

"A CEO can tell you to the dollar how much they spend on labor, on marketing, on sales, but when it comes to the data center, which is often the largest expense, they don't have any idea," he added.

How does this happen?

If this news surprises you, it should not. Think about it. If you have ever walked through a data center, did you ever stop to wonder if the servers in the racks were all being used?

"Nobody's looking for it. It hasn't been easy to look for. There has been no easy way to find out. IT is not inclined to shut down boxes if they don't know who owns it," said Taylor. He added that thanks to less than ideal record keeping, sometimes the only way to find out what a server does is shut it down and see who screams.

Alastair Winner, vice president of technology services, compute at HP, said there are multiple ways servers get forgotten.


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