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4 key ways to prevent server sprawl

Take steps to cut back on costly and hard-to-manage server sprawl: consolidate your hardware, virtualize your servers, consider software-defined infrastructure and stay organized.

Server sprawl is an inevitable challenge for IT administrators as data centers grow. You might never fully eliminate sprawl, but you can keep costs low by controlling and planning for it.

Maintaining more servers than your organization normally uses might seem like a good way to prepare for large workloads or spikes in demand, but this practice often leads to overprovisioning resources and low server utilization rates. Data centers suffering from server sprawl waste money on cooling and energy as underutilized servers take up space and consume resources.

By the time server sprawl becomes a problem, it's often difficult to reverse. Luckily, it's not impossible, and you can also take steps to prevent server sprawl from getting out of control before it becomes an issue.

Combatting server sprawl

Server consolidation combats server sprawl by making more efficient use of resources or reducing the number of underutilized servers. This process might not sound complicated, but it takes time, especially for data centers with multiple locations.

Start by drawing up a server consolidation project plan. Lay out a view of all your business's servers and the workloads running on them, and note how you manage data across the deployment. If your organization doesn't have this information readily available, gather and sort this data yourself so you can make informed decisions. IT asset management tools can help here.

Once you have a plan for server consolidation, you can chart your course forward. A combination of several techniques enables you to best manage and prevent sprawl.

1. Consolidate hardware

An abundance of hardware is the primary cause of server sprawl, so start by consolidating your physical servers. You can approach hardware consolidation in a few ways. For example, you can invest in high-density servers to replace your low-end equipment. This enables you to cut back on the amount of space your hardware takes up and save on power and cooling costs.

You can also run multiple workloads on each server. This reduces the number of servers running single instances; however, you must ensure you don't violate any compliance or security standards in the process. This practice can also lead to complex configurations and workload interference -- if one server goes down, all the applications it runs go down with it, meaning more widespread application downtime in the event of server failure.

Consolidating hardware requires a delicate balance, but it can reduce the hardware maintenance costs inherent to server sprawl.

2. Virtualize servers

Server virtualization also reduces physical server sprawl. Virtualization enables you to create and abstract multiple virtual instances on a single server. You can isolate these virtual environments, which means you can run several independent OSes with different configurations on the same server.

Server virtualization immensely helps with consolidating and provisioning resources. You can quickly and easily deploy VMs to run various workloads. However, you must then watch out for VM sprawl. Without clear-cut processes in place, you might end up with more VMs than you can manage, which can lead to sloppy inventories, messy configurations and licensing complications.

To combat VM sprawl, have a plan and established processes for server virtualization in place. Without such a plan, VM sprawl can become more time-consuming to control than physical server sprawl.

3. Implement software-defined infrastructure

The benefits of software-defined infrastructure address some of the challenges posed by server consolidation and virtualization. Software enables IT staff to interact with server resources via easy-to-use interfaces and introduces automation, which cuts down on manual tasks and makes it easy to revert to past configurations or deploy new instances as needed.

Software-defined infrastructure doesn't require specialized IT knowledge, and it enables better control of your environment. You can troubleshoot and remedy problems faster and more easily, and you can complete complex tasks accurately with less opportunity for error.

However, implementing software-defined infrastructure is a large, expensive undertaking, only worth the investment for complex and dynamic data centers. Software-defined infrastructure requires a physical infrastructure, a virtual layer and a set of management services to establish organized workflows and policies.

4. Control future sprawl with IT asset management and capacity planning tools

An organized, easy-to-understand and accurate picture of your data center's asset use can help you make informed decisions that prevent future server sprawl.

Certain data center and IT asset management tools keep track of your applications across equipment and present that data to you concisely. When combined with capacity planning tools and comprehensive workflow policies, you can understand not only how many servers you require but how to distribute workloads evenly across that deployment.

Consolidating hardware alone might rein in server sprawl for your data center, but those organizations with more complex operations should apply additional steps. This helps control costs, provision resources and plan for future capacity so that you can avoid server sprawl today and in the future.

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