This year marks the 10th anniversary of the 1,200 square foot data centre at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, three years past what CIO and vice president of operations Joanne Kossuth originally planned.

Despite needing more capacity and better connectivity, Kossuth has been forced to backburner the issue due to iffy economic times. "Demand has certainly increased over the years, pushing the data centre to its limits, but the recession has tabled revamp discussions," she says.

Like many of her peers, including leaders at Citigroup and Marriott International, Kossuth has had to get creative to eke more out of servers, storage and the facility itself. To do so, she's had to re-examine the lifecycle of data and applications, storage array layouts, rack architectures, server utilisation, orphaned devices and more.

Rakesh Kumar, research vice president at Gartner, says he's been bombarded by large organisations looking for ways to avoid the cost of a data centre upgrade, expansion or relocation. "Any data centre investment costs at minimum tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars. With a typical data center refresh rate of five to 10 years, that's a lot of money, so companies are looking for alternatives," he says.

While that outlook might seem gloomy, Kumar finds that many companies can extract an extra two to five years from their data center by employing a combination of strategies, including consolidating and rationalising hardware and software usage, rolling out virtualisation and physically moving IT equipment around. Most companies don't optimise the components of their data centre and, therefore bump up against its limitations faster than necessary, he says.

Here are some strategies that IT leaders and other experts suggest to push data centres farther.

Relocate non-critical data

One of the first areas that drew the attention of Olin College's Kossuth was the cost of dealing with data. As one example, alumni, admissions staff and other groups take multiple CDs worth of high resolution photos at every event. They use server, storage and bandwidth resources to edit, share and retain those large images over long periods of time.

To free the data centre from dealing with the almost 10 terabytes of data those photos require, Kossuth opened a corporate account on Flickr and moved all processes surrounding management of those photos over there. Not only did it save her the cost of a $40,000 (£25,000) storage array she would have had to purchase, but also alleviated the pressure from the resource-intensive activity associated with high resolution images.

"There is little risk in moving non-core data out of the data centre, and now we have storage space for mission critical projects," Kossuth says.

Take the pressure off of high value applications and infrastructure

Early on, Olin College purchased an $80,000 (£50,000) Tandberg videoconferencing system and supporting storage array. Rather than exhausting that investment from overuse, Kossuth now prioritises video capture and distribution, shifting lower priority projects to less expensive videoconferencing solutions and YouTube for storage.

For example, most public relations videos are generated outside of the Tandberg system and are posted on the college's YouTube channel. "The data centre no longer has to supply dedicated bandwidth for streaming and dedicated hardware for retention," she says. More importantly, the Tandberg system is kept pristine for high profile conferences and mission critical distance learning.

Standardise servers and storage

Dan Blanchard, vice president of enterprise operations at hotel giant Marriott International, boasts that his main data centre is 22 years old and he intends to get 20 more years from it. He credits discipline on the part of IT as a reason for its long life, particularly in terms of standardisation.

Each year, the IT team settles on a handful of server and storage models to purchase. If a new project starts up or one of the 300 to 400 physical servers fails, machines are ready and waiting. Storage is handled similarly.

Even switches, though on a longer refresh cycle of about five years, are standardized. "Uniformity makes it much simpler to manage resources and predict capacity. If you have lots of unique hardware from numerous vendors, it's harder to plan," Blanchard says.

He recommends working closely with vendors to understand their roadmap and strategise standardised refreshes accordingly. For instance, Marriott might delay a planned refresh if a vendor's announced feature sets are worth it.

Virtualise whatever you can

 Blanchard also is a fan of virtualisation. Marriott's pool of physical machines supports almost 1,000 virtual servers, freeing up floor space, power and cooling. Though virtualisation requires high power, high density servers, the fact that Marriott is able to consolidate the pool to several hundred physical machines that are energy efficient saves on overall data centre consumption.

Gartner's Kumar agrees that consolidation is a positive for data centres because low-utilisation servers, those dedicated to just one or two applications, consume almost the same amount of energy as highly utilised ones. "Just to keep a server on consumes 50% to 60% of the energy as it would if it were running full," he says.

Also, older servers tend to be far less efficient than those used for today's virtualisation efforts.

Root out and retire unused or low-utilised devices and applications

 Taking the previous point a step further, "organisations should "clean house," Kumar says. Data centre managers should conduct an audit using asset management software or other such tools that garner visibility into application and hardware inventories.

What you're likely to turn up: Some 5% to 10% of hardware devices are either switched off or are maintaining a single, rarely used application, according to Kumar. Falling back to the reality that servers consume energy and other resources at any utilisation rate, either trash the application or virtualise it and retire or reuse the hardware.

"You have to make sure that every piece of hardware in your data centre is doing productive work," he says.

At international financial conglomerate Citigroup, uncovering little-used applications is a regular exercise among the company's 14 data centres (the oldest has been in use for 20 years).

"Over the years, things get lost. Not only do we use asset management tools, but we also physically walk around the data centre to make sure each device has a purpose," says Jack Glass, Citigroup's director of IT planning. He warns, though, to consult with applications teams before unplugging anything.

Glass agrees if a low-utilised application is consuming hardware resources, it should be virtualised. "Virtualisation is definitely our standard here. If it can't be decommissioned, then, where possible, it gets virtualised," he says.

Contain test and development sprawl

 IT leaders concur that most test and development folks will consume whatever resources you offer them and, therefore, must be carefully monitored. In fact, Citigroup's Glass says, he often finds abandoned or concluded test and development projects during his utilisation reviews.

Kossuth uses a proactive strategy to ensure that test and development efforts don't overtake her data centre. She ropes off an area of the data center complete with server and storage resources as a sandbox. Usage is carefully monitored and when projects end, resources are immediately reabsorbed. She calls it a way to protect the data centre without stifling innovation.

Look for duplicate data in your storage arrays

 Jason Kutticherry, vice president of data centre planning at Citigroup, says the company has made a concerted effort to reduce its storage footprint, saving on data center floor space, power and cooling. A key technology for this has been data deduplication, which keeps an eye out for duplication of files and in some cases data within files.

"As a financial institution, we store a lot of data, so we want to make sure we're not adding to the burden by saving multiple copies," he says. Using deduplication consistently has helped the company reclaim storage at a fast enough rate that it has avoided unnecessary buildouts of storage arrays.

Push your developers to use effective coding

 While this advice might seem unrelated to the life of a manager, Kutticherry insists that inefficient coding can have a tremendous impact on resources. Applications that are poorly coded force servers to work harder, consume far more processing power and add to the overall number of needed servers. "Ensure your developers are using the tightest code they can so that applications are most effective," he says.

Data center managers should also require developers to use common databases and not the custom variety. "Again, it makes for a more optimised computing environment and reduces the strain on hardware and software," he adds.

Rearrange the furniture

If floor space is your nemesis, consider moving IT equipment around. "What typically happens in most data centres is that once built and commissioned to a certain design specification, new equipment is added over the ensuing years with consideration to cabling and cooling requirements rather than an optimal floor layout," Gartner's Kumar says.

He urges IT teams to review layouts every three to five years and use available tools such as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis, which models proper airflow, or those available from equipment vendors to redraw floor plans. "While a CFD can be expensive at around $30,000, gaining a few more years from your data centre makes it worthwhile," he argues.

He also points to pace-layering, a design technique used to organise data centres in an optimal manner where different pieces evolve at different speeds, or phases. So, in other words, the web servers need to be managed differently from, say, tier-1 storage.

Analyse your energy efficiency

 A CFD, in addition to helping to map floor space, is a useful tool for energy efficiency. Too often, companies overload certain areas of the data centre with equipment, creating hotspots that max out power and cooling, Kumar says. By analysing the data centre's temperature, you can potentially delay the expense of larger air conditioners and increased power supplies. A simple repositioning of racks or equipment could buy you years with your data centre, he says.

Kossuth engineers her racks so that there is plenty of airflow in the back of racks and equipment is properly cooled. "We have heat and humidity sensors all over the room and receive alerts if the temperature exits a certain band. This has helped us maintain optimal power and cooling levels over the years," she says.

When in doubt, move it out

If all else fails and it looks like you are going to bump up against data centre capacity, don't be afraid to move servers, software or storage offsite. Options abound for taking up the slack, and they might even give you just enough leeway to eke several more years from your current data centre.

Here are some options:

Head to the cloud

 Companies like Amazon, HP, IBM and Oracle all offer cloud-based services that enable bursts in computing capacity when needed. For instance, if you have a seasonal project that would push your internal data centre to its limits infrastructure-wise, you can temporarily contract server resources from a provider. This will meet your short term needs without forcing a long term investment.

Roll in a pod

 If building out or relocating your data centre is out of the question for your organisation, a pod just might be the answer. Cisco, HP and Silicon Graphics International are among vendors offering portable data centres. These self-contained units can boost your overall capacity without the expense of a massive construction project.

Say hello to co-lo

 Colocation is nothing new in the world of data centres. However, it can be your best friend when trying to avoid an overhaul of your existing site. By transferring some of your infrastructure to a provider's site, you can free up valuable floor space, power and cooling, but still maintain control of your hardware and software.