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Data center upgrade saves ICF International millions

Professional services firm ICF’s data center upgrade saved nearly $2 million with the help of a public cloud and server virtualization.

DALLAS – A combination public cloud and server virtualization project helped professional services firm ICF International save nearly $2 million while upgrading an aging data center during a significant growth period for the firm.

Lon Anderson, vice president of corporate information technology at Fairfax, Va.-based ICF, detailed the savings during a presentation this week at Storage Networking World (SNW) Spring 2012. Anderson said the 4,500-employee company saved $1.5 million from virtualizing its application servers and another $250,000 from moving primary applications to the cloud.

In 2008, ICF began its initiative to carry out a data center upgrade through virtualization and the cloud. That plan helped the company through a massive growth period that included 11 acquisitions over the past several years. ICF’s revenue and headcount grew 50% since then as it transformed from a midsize organization to a large corporation with $841 million in revenue last year. It has gone from 200 servers in 2009 to more than 1,000 currently.

“We started focusing on virtualizing what we could virtualize quickly, and started to place applications into the cloud,” Anderson said. “Finally, core virtualization efforts were achieved and we took four enterprise applications and put them in the cloud in 2009, including CRM, performance management, talent management and onboarding.”

ICF consolidated 13 data centers into one, and eight of the 11 acquisitions have been fully integrated into the company. ICF’s servers are about 75% virtualized, and IT staff dedicated to managing them dropped from 12 to two.

Rapid growth brought storage challenges

The company changed the way it manages its storage, which consists of three storage area networks (SANs) and about 120TB of capacity.

Anderson said ICF closely monitors storage allocation, tracking how departments and divisions use it over time and how much that usage changes.

 “We may give you 50 gigs of storage and over time you are using a certain amount that does not change,” Anderson said. “So we will cut back to 20 or 30 gigs instead. It changes how we look at storage.”

The IT staff uses that monitoring to decide which applications need fast, expensive storage versus slower, cheaper storage. The next step will be to tier storage based on seasonal requirements of applications. “That is going to be an evolution for us,” he said.

ICF hasn’t calculated the storage cost savings because it is tied to server virtualization savings. However, replicating data to the cloud has provided some cost efficiencies for disaster recovery. “Disaster recovery is really a numbers game,” Anderson said. “Cloud providers are in a better position to do disaster recovery than I am.”

ICF also is exploring moving to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) because at least 50% of its workforce is mobile. Anderson said ICF still considers virtual desktop technology expensive and hard to manage, so he first must ensure the VDI expense is justified.  Still, he said: “We do believe this is where we are going, and I wouldn’t be surprised that by the end of the year we will construct a business plan for it.”

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