The Dollars and (Common) Cents of Centralized Systems

A smart person once said that “centralized systems tend to de-centralize, and de-centralized systems tend to centralize.” This is what we are witnessing in the IT world.

For years, the mainframe dominated the world. Then, the networked PC with server nodes evolved in various forms, and it became quite chic to talk about the mainframe and its assorted subsystems and support personnel as some kind of genetic throwbacks stuck in Conan Doyle’s “Lost World.”

The mainframe became the symbol of an information-systems tyranny that could only be broken via the complete independence of the end-user to maintain their own self-designed, self-engineered systems running on their own personal machines; a sort of siliconized version of the “Me Generation.”

Enter the anti-mainframe — the networked PC, the servers down the hall, the evolved network held together by miles of cables, fiber optics and coax. The guy who supported your system worked for your department and likely never met your IT director, if you still had one.

And throughout all of this, the mantra of saving money was being chanted. “Cheaper than that boat-anchor mainframe” was the phrase I remember hearing constantly.

Cheaper Than the Mainframe … Really?

Like the hundreds of space heaters, refrigerators and lava lamps running in office cubicles, the cost of the hundreds of locally installed servers is hidden behind all of the various departmental budgets paying for the hardware, software, support, climate control, training, wiring and maintenance supporting these distributed systems.

“Ah ha!” you say. That’s as it should be, the expense is closer to the expenditure and therefore it more accurately reflects the actual need in terms of the money spent.

But consider the following:

What’s your capacity?

The average mainframe is running at approximately 85-to-90 percent capacity. The average server is running at about 20% capacity; almost the inverse of the amount utilized by the mainframe. What does this mean? It means the company is paying for huge amounts of server capacity that will likely never be needed.

How are you cooling your systems?

My company’s CEO once remarked that “without software, the only thing hardware can produce is heat.” So, what are you doing with the “heat” all those servers produce? Your mainframe system may well be cooled by water coming off your HVAC chillers. In the winter, the heat from the mainframe could be contributing to the maintenance of a tolerable ambient temperature in your building.

Now, think about all of those closets, file rooms, hallways and odd corners now housing servers. How are they being cooled? Do you see fans running for hours on end standing in front of wide-open closet doors exposing the servers within? Maybe you’re not cooling your servers; maybe you’re just losing the data maintained on the overheated box.

How much does that cooling cost?

The lost data, the hundreds of fans purring away, the crashed system resulting from overheating because someone forgot to turn the fan on — again, it’s not visible. It’s hidden behind the individual department or group budget or it’s spread out in the general overhead for the building, division or campus.