Purchasing Professional Storage Services

Thursday Mar 18th 2004 by Henry Newman
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Purchasing Professional Storage Services

One of the largest costs associated with storage hardware and software acquisition is purchasing the services to integrate the hardware and software into your working environment. When you purchase hardware and software storage solutions you often have to make a choice in terms of who will handle integrating all the pieces and making the new architecture work as expected. Your typical choices are:

  • The hardware or software vendor’s professional services (PS) organization

  • The hardware/software provider or integrator who might sell you the solution and their internal PS group (integrators occasionally contract to the vendors for part of the work)

  • An independent contractor who has no relationship to the vendor or the integrator selling the hardware and software

  • Training your own staff for the task

In many cases your selection be a combination of some of the above choices, but the most important issue is determining the fastest and most cost-efficient use of resources given what you purchase. In other words, which group (or groups) is best equipped to get the job done at the best price?

(Author’s note: As an independent storage consultant I have tried to look at the marketing without rose-colored glasses and with an unbiased view given all of the issues surrounding storage consulting. I believe we all have biases, so it is best to be up front and let everyone know what they are. Hopefully, I have overcome my biases.)


This article is the first in a two part series on storage architecture and professional services.

Who to Choose?

Given the right situation I could easily make a case for each of the groups being the best available option, so it depends on the situation. Of course, you always have the potential situation of the occasional bad consultant or representative from any of the groups, but that situation, in my experience at least, is quite uncommon.

Therefore, if any one of these groups could be the best, how then do you decide who to use, when to use them, and how to interview each of the candidate organizations? The best way to approach the problem is not to start by looking at each of the organization’s pros and cons, but rather to look at the problem you are trying to solve and the timeframe you are trying to solve it in.

What’s Included?

Before starting the process, it’s a good idea to find out exactly what you get with what you have purchased. In many cases, hardware and software vendors include some level of services with the purchase of new solutions. Services are often included because the vendors want to make sure that you get value from their products, and they place the most trust in those certified to represent their product appropriately.

As a result, it’s important to ask what exactly you get, as sometimes if you do not specifically ask for it, the bundled price for services will not break out what you get as part of the hardware and software purchase. From my experience with hardware vendors, you often get the bare minimum of installing the hardware and ensuring that it’s operational.

The key point is to verify what’s specifically included in the purchase as well as what isn’t included. It is also a good idea to ask about what training is included or available for the products and the schedule and location of the training centers.

Page 2: Situational Analysis

Continued from Page 1

Situational Analysis

OK, given that I made the bold statement earlier that each of these groups could be best given the situation, what are the areas that need to be considered before determining what group will be best suited to the task? The areas that I believe need to be considered are:

  1. What are the hardware and software components, and from whom are you buying them?

  2. What skills do your current staff have, how capable are they in learning new things, and what is their availability?

  3. Is the hardware and software heterogeneous (composed of solutions from multiple vendors) or homogenous (single vendor)?

This set of questions is really just the tip of the iceberg, but with answers to these questions, the task of choosing a PS vendor or set of vendors should be made much easier.

The Selling Organization

Knowing your selling organization is critical to success. I believe organizations fall into three categories:

  1. Fully integrated
  2. Partially integrated
  3. Support PS
  4. No PS
Fully Integrated

A fully integrated selling organization can integrate all the hardware and software that they sell. For example, if you buy a solution from the likes of IBM, HP, Sun, and others, and all components are made or sold by that organization, they are highly likely to be able to put the solution together for standard configurations. In some cases storage vendors such as EMC provide integrated services similar to the large integrated vendors and can even offer servers from some of the vendors.

Most vendors have standard configurations they sell that combine hardware and software. In general, these vendors are vertically integrated, so the PS groups know the hardware and software end-to-end. Problems generally arise only when configurations include non-standard hardware and software or when something new is added that wasn’t configured in the standard configuration. In many cases, because of the vast number of ways to configure software, this tends to be the area that can get the fully integrated PS organizations into trouble.

In a fully integrated organization you’ll typically have a chief architect assigned to you for the project. This person is responsible for the architecture and making sure it meets your requirements.

Partially Integrated

A good example of partially integrated PS organizations is the myriad of smaller Linux vendors selling clusters. These vendors buy hardware and software from a variety to sources, and if you purchase a cluster and PS contract from one of them, you may end up with multiple PS organizations for supporting the RAID, switches, file systems, and other software components. In some cases you might get an architect, but most often you do not.

Support PS

My definition of support PS is a dedicated group that installs the hardware and/or software, but leaves the architecture to someone else. For example, a storage vendor might set up and configure the RAID LUNs with no knowledge of the applications and file system. The LUNs are configured and will likely be configured optimally for total performance, but the real question is will they be optimal for your file system and applications? (Not likely.)

No PS

Some organizations just sell hardware and/or software and maintain no real PS organization. You can usually get a very good price on the hardware and software, but for complex configurations you have no assurances and will have to rely on your own staff or another contracted PS organization to ensure it all works together the way you expect – and need – it to work.

Page 3: Current Staff

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Current Staff

Your current staff likely has the best knowledge of your working environment and operations. An important consideration when purchasing new hardware is that if it doesn’t include proper training, it’s unfair to expect your staff to do their current jobs as well as research and install the new hardware and software. And even if they get the proper training, it’s often highly difficult to fully understand and put together the architecture while maintaining everything else.

Heterogeneous or Homogenous

It goes without saying that homogenous architectures from a single vendor are much easier to configure and maintain, but they often cost more and provide less functionality than heterogeneous architectures.

This has been the case in the storage world for a number of years, and there are many good reasons for it. Storage vendor A, for example, may have a better RAID than server vendor B, while the file system from company C is better than what is offered by vendors A or B.

As storage vendors like EMC move into the software arena, just as server vendors have moved into the storage arena, the line between what is heterogeneous and what is homogenous for a configuration is going to get more and more difficult to figure out. If you buy a file system OEMed by a storage vendor, is that heterogeneous or homogenous, and should you care? I think the real issue today is how the hardware and software will be used and if that usage will be consistent with other configurations being sold by that vendor.

Conclusions

The key to fully understanding what your options are depends on first defining your requirements and resources. Each of the company and PS types exist for a sound business reason — you are not dealing with not-for-profit organizations.

In the next article we will cover some of the ins and outs of each of the different types of organizations, both your internal resources and external providers for the required services.

Each of these has advantages and disadvantages. As architectures get more complex and services become a bigger part of the storage costs, it is important that you understand the requirements of and limitations within your organization.


Please feel free to send any comments, feedback, and/or suggestions for future articles to Henry Newman.

» See All Articles by Columnist Henry Newman

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