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The Rise of the Zombie Servers and How to Stop Them

January 05, 2017

They may not be the walking dead, but zombie servers are very real and pose a serious threat to today’s network infrastructure. Otherwise known as a comatose server, the zombie is a physical server that is up and running but otherwise essentially useless. The server consumes electricity, space and cooling resources and therefore requires significant expenditures to remain running, but otherwise contributes no compute resources to the network, and has no external visibility or communications.

 The rise of the zombie servers isn’t an unusual or rogue phenomenon, unfortunately. A study from the Anthesis Group estimates there are 3.6 million zombie servers in the U.S. alone, and the worldwide count may be as much as 10 million. The Uptime Institute estimates 30 percent of all servers in data centers may be classified as “zombies.” These servers consume approximately four gigawatts of power and take up a massive amount of physical real estate.

Why do zombie servers exist? Typically they are created based on user requests for applications that get either no use at all or less than 6 percent of use, causing the servers to sit idle the vast majority of the time. Normal servers also become zombie servers when redundant and legacy applications and services have been replaced without the proper housekeeping. But no matter the cause of the zombie server, the end result is a waste of valuable space, power and precious cooling resources, leading to unnecessary expenditures.

Killing the zombie servers is the only way to manage this growing phenomenon. TSO Logic predicts that a company with 1,000 servers could save $300,000 by eliminating the zombies. Massive savings was a reality for AOL, which underwent a five-year global project to kill off its zombie servers. The result was a whopping $10 million in savings in just one year, along with a 35 percent reduction in the company’s carbon footprint.

A data center infrastructure management system (DCIM) is one of the best ways to monitor metrics like CPU usage and power draw as well as to pinpoint underused resources. This type of consistent monitoring can easily identify zombie servers and automatically alert staff. Data center operators and IT staff can also reduce server sprawl by combining multiple zombie servers into single virtual servers, or by repurposing servers altogether.

Zombie servers are just one of the unfortunate side effects of a rapidly transforming network infrastructure. But with proper monitoring and management, businesses can get a handle on the problem and prevent 2017 from becoming the year of the zombie server.

Edited by Alicia Young

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