Some of the Nation's largest insurers, including Aflac, Allstate and Nationwide, are adopting the latest technologies to build and maintain smaller, more efficient data centers capable of managing greater workloads-and producing big savings.

Insurers' data storage requirements grow incessantly, spurred by an avalanche of customer data, product information, stored documents, PDFs, video files, e-mail and transaction records. All of this information must be stored for years at a time, resulting in huge loads on data centers. The historic solution has been to throw more hardware at the problem, and even build new facilities to accommodate new hardware, driving up costs and resulting in energy-hungry facilities gobbling up increasing levels of real estate.

Not only is this brute-force approach costly upfront, but it also contributes to the ongoing problem of data center energy consumption. A recent report from Greenpeace estimates that data center energy consumption will also triple by over the next decade.

Some of the nation's top insurers, however, have come up with more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly ways to manage data centers - and save money, too. These companies are adopting the latest strategies to build and manage smaller, more efficient data centers that handle even greater workloads. In 2009, Aflac opened a brand-new 161,000-square-foot IT center in Columbus, Ga., with a strong focus on energy efficiency and green technology-even going so far as to give preferential parking for carpoolers and preserving more than 2,000 feet of green space. About the same time, Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co. opened a green data center in Rochelle, Ill., which incorporates a range of best practices and state-of-the-art technology aimed at saving energy and employing renewable resources. Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Mutual Insurance is finalizing a new, greener data center in New Albany, Ohio, as part of a massive consolidation strategy.

Moved to Tiers

In the cases of these insurers, smarter information management is a key part of the efficiency equation. Core to this strategy is a tiered storage approach, which consists of keeping current data on centralized platforms that are immediately accessible to their business users, while moving older data to more cost-effective hardware with longer latency times. "We've done a lot of work around storage and storage area networks (SANs), and trying to push more things from tier-one storage," says Rod Brown, director of the mission critical group at Nationwide. "In the process, we've been able to reduce our costs, and make things easier to manage. There is also far less energy consumption in tier-two or tier-four storage."

Allstate's IT teams have also been tackling the issue of inefficient storage head-on in recent years. "When I first got here, we were the largest consumers of tier-one SAN you probably ever met," says Anthony Abbattista, VP of technology solutions for Allstate. "We started a tiered storage strategy based on cost. Right now, we probably have about 10 to 12 times the storage on the floor, spinning storage, disks, than we had four and half years ago. But our data storage costs have dropped by about 10% to 15%."

Adopting a similar strategy, Aflac has been able to double the data storage capacity within its new data center with no additional increase in costs. "We just increased our storage capacity by 100%, but have not increased our power consumption within the data center," says Pat Ryal, VP of technology services for Aflac. "We have three tiers of storage. We use highly efficient, quick-response systems to meet near-term demand, and archived systems that may result in a little bit of a delay in retrieving data."

Less is More

These same insurers have recently built or are in the process of building new, smarter data centers, not to add more physical facilities, but to consolidate their large inventories. As a result, these companies are cutting costs and energy consumption.

Nationwide's New Albany data center, for example, is part of the company's dramatic consolidation from 28 to three data centers. The company currently operates out of two consolidated data centers, with the third, greener New Albany center starting to come online this year. Much of this process was possible through virtualization of the company's IT systems-Brown reports that up to 50% of Nationwide's resources are now virtualized. The consolidation "saved us quite a bit of money, and also makes us more energy efficient and greener," he says. "We've been able to leverage our equipment into two smaller spaces."

Going Virtual

Virtualization is also helping enable Allstate to scale down from four data centers to two, which includes its recently opened Rochelle data center. Abbattista says most systems within the data center are virtualized servers running Windows and Unix-based applications, which consumes far less energy and floor space than its previous stable of mainframes.

"We did work in virtualization, and we also did work in developing computing farms with a general-purpose shared infrastructure to get like-minded functions running together," Abbattista relates. "We took out 70% of our database servers by going to a shared infrastructure. Instead of each application or development group saying, 'hey I need to talk to my database server,' we said, 'here's a standard offering, and oh, by the way, its reliable, its clustered, it has the right backup and availability characteristics, and it's not going to cost you more."

As a result of this consolidation and virtualization, Allstate's new data center ended up being only half the original size planned, he adds. Allstate was also planning to close its two older data centers by June of this year.

At Aflac, a migration to virtual tape storage - versus tape-based systems - has resulted in significantly reduced space requirements at the company's new data center. "We've dramatically decreased our storage requirements over the last year," Ryal says. "We dramatically increased our floor space within the data center because we were able to remove physical tape." As an added green benefit, tapes no longer need to be transported to offsite archived storage centers. "We used to have individuals from our data center migrate our tape volumes or backups from the data center to offsite vault locations," she explains. "That was a 15-mile round-trip drive for them everyday."

Vendor management is also a part of a green and efficient IT strategy. "We look for vendors who are sustainable when we're doing hardware upgrades," Ryal says. "We ask for a sustainability statement now, so we can see what their practices are, and how much manufacturing recycled products they use. So that's fairly new, and it's starting to catch on. But we also assess the power efficiency of the equipment."

Building Green

IT teams are also increasingly becoming involved in the actual design of the physical structure, which can greatly enhance the efficiency of operations. "We started off saying, we want to be efficient, and build a good building," Abbattista says, noting the facility has received LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. "The thing that quickly became clear is that the size of mechanical and electrical plant is sort of a driving cost and factor. And, that got us interested in how you build a better, smaller building, and start to do something about energy and kilowatts, which are the largest operating costs in the data center."

Efforts to achieve efficient and green data centers need not be expensive or overwhelming. "It's okay to start small," says Nationwide's Brown. "There are many best practices and small steps you can take that can have a dramatic impact on your operations. Whether its simply configuring your space to make the best use of your cooling systems, or closing up holes in your raised floor, or choosing to turn off comatose servers, or turn on power management features of your servers, there are many small things that can be done before you take on the big projects."

Aflac's Ryal agrees that taking small steps is the best way to manage storage in more efficient ways. "Overall, it seems daunting when you first undertake it, and you think you have to do all these great and grand things, and invest a lot of money. We have found that's not the case. You can look for some more simple things, some quick wins, such as airflow channeling."

This article can also be found at InsuranceNetworking.com.

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