Purchasing Professional Storage Services, Part 2

Thursday Apr 1st 2004 by Henry Newman

Purchasing Professional Storage Services, Part 2

In our last article we covered some of the basics of purchasing storage professional services (Storage PS). This time we are going to go into more detail on determining who would be best for which types of jobs and why.

We’ll start with a key point from the first article. Basically, integration of new storage systems comes down to picking between four options (or a combination of the options):

  • The hardware or software vendor’s professional services 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 the line between the hardware/software vendors and the people who sell you the hardware is blurry, so I tend to lump those two organizations together.

With the various servicing options in mind, let’s look at really answering the question of who is the best group to install, configure, and service the hardware and software that you have chosen.

Is the Hardware the Same Color?

This is a term we often use in consulting that basically means is all of the hardware coming from a single vendor. For example, we use the term Blue (for obvious reasons) to describe IBM. For a standard configuration, having the hardware and/or software from a single vendor (aka a homogeneous environment) simplifies the configuration and allows you to work with a single support organization to get problems resolved.

Large storage vendors such as EMC also have PS organizations that can often provide services for all of the hardware and software products they sell and will include support for their products on the server or servers.

In general, if you buy all the hardware and software from a single vendor, it makes good sense to also contract the PS from the same vendor, as you then have one organization that is responsible for support and servicing, and the vendor's PS organization is likely to know that vendor's hardware and software better than a third party. Notice I say likely, as I have seen individual PS engagements where vendors send unqualified people to support a configuration.

This of course becomes a bit blurry when you talk about Linux clusters. Most of the large Unix server vendors all sell a Linux cluster system, which is often put together with parts from AMD, Intel (CPUs), Quadrics, Myicom (interconnects), Linux software providers, and a hodgepodge of other companies.

While in many cases it is best to select the typically higher priced vendor PS organization to configure new systems purchased from a single vendor, there are a few exceptions, including:

  • If you have the time and money to train your own people and have them do the work, you may be better off in the long run in terms of both ongoing support and employee moral

  • If the configuration of the hardware and software has not been attempted before and the vendor says something along the lines of “We think it will work,” you may want to consider another organization that has previously completed work of this type

Another general statement is that vendor PS organizations are almost always familiar with their own hardware but generally unfamiliar with others. For example, asking the PS organization of HP to install LSI Logic RAID controllers is probably not going to be the best answer given that they do not resell them and have limited experience – if any at all – with them.

As another example, large storage vendors such as EMC generally have multi-server vendor experience, so if the storage is EMC they can deal with the other services, but EMC cannot likely install HDS RAIDs.

So what should you do if you happen to have storage from LSI, HDS, and EMC, and are adding some new servers and a shared file system with HSM? Rather than relying on a single vendor’s PS group, heterogeneous environments such as these are typically better served by an independent PS organization.

Page 2: Using Independent Organizations

Continued from Page 1

Using Independent Organizations

Most independent storage PS organizations have experience in a variety of hardware and software configurations and are able to put together heterogeneous configurations more efficiently – and thus more cost-effectively. Of course, you’ll still need to learn all you can about a specific PS organization by asking some tough questions like:

  • General references on the quality of their work

  • References as to specific types of hardware and software for which they have knowledge and experience

  • The working relationship they have with the hardware and software vendors in question (realizing of course that most vendors do not like these independent organizations, as they reduce the potential revenue of the vendors’ own PS organizations and the commission of the account manager)

  • Whether or not the independent organization has a laboratory or access to a laboratory for prototyping the configuration before installing it at your location

Independent organizations generally will not stay in business unless they are successful, as word of mouth for smaller companies would be their demise, so longevity is another important criterion to consider.

It’s also not at all uncommon for a vendor PS organization to hire independent companies. This happens for a number of reasons, including:

  • Handling heterogeneous configurations that the vendor does not have a great deal of experience with

  • Complex configuration situations in which the vendor has never attempted but that the independent organization has previously taken a risk on by building a similar configuration

  • Since small companies tend to have less overhead than large companies, it can be more cost effective in some cases for the vendor to handle PS opportunities with a smaller staff and to utilize small companies with less overhead that can be eliminated at any time

So the point to take away is that even if you hire the vendor’s PS organization, you will sometimes end up working with an independent organization. As with most things in life, this has both its good and bad points.

The good points are:

  1. Often you are getting someone independent that has broad experience with many different products

  2. You still have a single vendor to point a finger at for hardware, software, and PS issues

The bad points are:

  1. You are going to pay far more than you would by hiring the independent organization directly (going through the vendor will of course carry an associated “middle-man” fee)

  2. You will get a far less autonomous view of the hardware and software, as the independent organization in this case is not really independent but rather working for and representing the vendor

One additional point to consider: many independent PS organizations (especially the smaller ones) do not provide long-term support, so it is in their best interest to train your people on the hardware, software, and configuration. This is not always the case with vendor’s PS organizations, as they have people that can work at your site for years, which is often the goal of the account manager for large sites.

Page 3: Final Thoughts on Storage PS

Continued from Page 2

Final Thoughts on Storage PS

When I started this series I wanted to be up front that I could be considered somewhat biased, as in my “day job” the company I work for is an independent PS organization. I believe, though, that I have treated the topic fairly given the complexity of the issues.

Hardware vendors with large PS organizations cannot have them sitting around for long periods of time, nor can smaller organizations. Most PS organizations build in a certain amount of downtime for training, and time between projects, and in general large organizations tend to build in more downtime, which is one of several factors as to why their cost is higher.

I am a strong advocate that, unless you have outsourced the whole operation, a company’s own staff must be trained to take over any new storage system. Your own employees will always know the requirements and the nuances of the environment, whereas it may take years for a PS organization to learn your company’s inner workings.

Still, the local personnel may not be able to install and configure new, complex storage systems no matter how smart they are or how much training they get. And some of the systems I have installed have never been attempted before, so there is no training available. What is available for local staff via hiring a PS organization is mentoring once the system has been installed and the quirks and bugs have been resolved.

Overall, if the hardware and software are the same color, it makes good sense to strongly consider letting the vendor PS or reseller PS organization do the installation. This presents you with just one call to make to get resolution to problems, and that call will go to a servicing group that ought to know how to install their own hardware and software.

One thing that should never happen regardless of who is doing the work, is OJT (on the job training) — you should never pay for the PS organization to be training their own people. And it goes without saying that if you are paying for a chief architect, that person should have the abilities of a chief architect.

A final tip: clearly define expectations in any PS contract for all the types of people involved, by either doing it yourself or by getting the vendor’s definition of each of the roles of PS personnel. Storage PS organizations should provide the right people to get the job done in the estimated time for projects that are pretty straightforward.

On the other hand, if you are trying to do something that is less than straightforward, you had better expect the PS vendor to build risk into the bid. All too often, Murphy’s rule applies.

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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