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Server Sprawl: What is It and How to Avoid It?

By: Tom Banta on December 12, 2019

Managing an effective technology deployment is always a challenge, whether an organization only has a single server in a closet or several cabinets of servers in a colocation data center. While purchasing and installing that equipment is always a big decision that involves substantial research and consideration, many people don’t stop to think about how the way they utilize that equipment could have a major impact on their operational costs. When it comes to servers, one of the biggest factors to keep in mind is the phenomenon known as “server sprawl.”

What is Server Sprawl?

Organizations often use multiple servers within a data center environment to accommodate their processing, storage, and networking needs. In some cases, however, their computing resources exceed their actual business requirements. Server sprawl refers to a situation in which a cluster of servers aren’t being used up to their full capacity. A low server consolidation ratio generally leads to significant waste in terms of space, power, and cooling, which can end up costing an organization quite a bit of money.

For example, imagine that an organization’s technology stack consists of five servers. While they may need to power a variety of applications and store data from multiple sources, if only one of the servers is running at full capacity while the others are using only one-quarter of their available resources, there is a lot of wasted capacity in the deployment. While the company could be running all of its computing needs with two servers and maybe a third available for spikes in demand or rapid growth, it’s paying for five servers instead.

This situation is a textbook case of server sprawl because much of the computing power in the deployment is going underutilized.

Why is Server Sprawl a Problem?

So what’s so bad about having extra computing resources available? While having a bit of headroom in an organization’s IT infrastructure offers valuable flexibility, too much additional capacity can become very expensive very quickly.

The problem has to do with the nature of the servers themselves. A server utilizing only 10 percent of its available resources isn’t running at 10 percent power, which means it isn’t only consuming 10 percent of its cooling needs. When server workloads are poorly allocated, organizations can wind up spending far more in power and cooling costs than they need to given the amount of capacity they’re actually using.

How to Avoid Server Sprawl

Fortunately, there are a number of easy steps IT departments can take to make sure that underutilized resources aren’t costing them money that could be dedicated elsewhere.

Focus on Server Consolidation

The best place to start is with determining where workloads are located and how data is being managed across the deployment. This is especially important for a deployment that has grown organically over a long period of time. As new pieces of hardware are added and old applications are swapped out for newer versions, no one may take the time to reassess workloads and optimize performance to ensure that resources are being used as efficiently as possible. Virtualization technology is especially valuable here, as a server consolidation expert can set up multiple virtual machines on a single server to drastically improve efficiency. Of course, IT teams need to keep a careful eye to avoid virtual machine sprawl in addition to general system sprawl.

Avoid System Sprawl Vulnerability

When looking at purchasing servers, it’s better to opt for quality over quantity to avoid system sprawl vulnerability. Organizations are sometimes be tempted to invest in a larger number of inexpensive servers instead of a small number of expensive, but higher-quality ones. After all, if the total capacity ends up being the same, the cheaper alternative can look quite appealing. But the true cost of a server isn’t just the price of the machine itself, but also how much it will cost in terms of power and cooling to keep it running. That’s where a smaller number of more powerful servers can wind up being a much wiser investment over time. By avoiding the server sprawl costs that result from spreading workloads inefficiently across multiple machines, organizations can keep their infrastructure streamlined and consolidated with a smaller number of high-density servers.

Educate Your Team

Most organizations turn to their IT professionals to deliver innovative solutions that drive transformational business growth. In order to meet those demands, IT departments sometimes keep their focus on what they might be asked to do in the future, causing them to overestimate capacity needs in order to retain a high degree of flexibility. Unfortunately, this can create ample opportunities for system sprawl. The pressure to deliver solutions quickly may also cause them to implement rapid fixes that aren’t the most efficient in terms of power and cooling costs. By educating the IT team about the importance of keeping server sprawl to a minimum, they can devote their substantial knowledge to consolidating infrastructure at every turn to make sure that costly inefficiencies don’t creep into the deployment.

Whether an organization is using an on-premises data solution or colocating assets in a carrier-neutral data center, the high operating costs associated with unused capacity can quickly accumulate. Server sprawl may not always be on an organization’s mind when it’s making decisions about its technology infrastructure, but failing to take it into account can lead to significant waste and unnecessary costs. Keeping a careful eye on capacity needs and workloads can help to ensure that IT deployments are being utilized in the most efficient way possible.

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