Cut Storage Costs with Selective Outsourcing
Outsourcing is suddenly fashionable again as business managers, confronting lean economic times, take another hard look at what is and isn't a "core competency."
Outsourcing is suddenly fashionable again as business managers, confronting lean economic times, take another hard look at what is and isn't a "core competency." Once again, IT is under the microscope and financial auditors are dusting off their Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) models. You know the ones I'm referring to: Those analytical hammers that make everything look like a nail. It's all done in an effort to ferret out "technology cost centers" so they can be pared back or winnowed out.
As an IT manager, you know the drill. You can argue that:
- TCO was never meant to be used as a bulldozer. It's intended to provide a picture of costs in a methodical way, not to provide a guide for tearing up infrastructure.
- In the systems world, things are interconnected. You can't just rip out this or that piece and expect everything to continue to run smoothly.
- The problem with TCO is that it doesn't show the benefits, only the costs.
- At a minimum, most IT infrastructure components are there to enable other IT infrastructure components. Indiscriminate pruning, guided solely by cost of ownership considerations, will kill the system as surely as it will kill a rose bush.
The answer from the bean counters is predictable. IT is not a rose bush, they might say. It's an indulgence of the company during periods of economic prosperity, a set of discretionary purchases that can and must be reduced to bare minimum during periods of belt-tightening. They'll point to convenient examples like Enron and its failed foray into light wave networks to make their point that technology cost can be a killer of otherwise respectable companies.
In the realm of storage technologythat all-important subset of IT that accounts for upwards of 60 percent of overall technology spending by U.S. companiesthis issue is a particularly knotty one. Storage is an obvious must-have as companies generate more and more data and everyone insists that it be online and available on a 24x7x365 basis. However, storage also accounts for 55 percent of IT downtime, according to a study by Intel Corp. Numerous analysts insist that it consumes more time and labor than does any other boggle on a system administrator's daily to-do list, with the possible exception of password administration. (The numbers are fuzzy here, to be sure. Little if any good research has been done on who's responsible for storage administration, how much they're paid, and how much labor really goes into administering storage.)
The challenge we face in storage cost of ownership is how to reduce costs that are largely the fault of the storage industry itself. The industry can't agree on a common storage model, so every storage platform must be administered separately. Vendors can't agree on a common storage management technique, and instead provide proprietary and non-interoperable "hooks" that force storage management software framework vendors to spend all their time writing device drivers rather than automating management functions that would save real bucks. They argue over the minutiae of this or that implementation of a given plumbing standard, while companies drown in their own storage management labor costs. (Truth be told, I think consumers would have everything they need if they just demanded itand backed their demands with judicious buying.)
That the outsourcing of storage and its management may shortly become a hip and cool thing to docosting jobs within enterprise ITshouldn't be blamed solely on the bean counters. There's a lot of blame to go around.
Blame game aside, the question that really needs to be asked is whether storage management should be outsourced. Put more succinctly, can a problem be fixed by assigning responsibility for it to someone else? The answer is maybe.
The StorNet StorTrust Monitor service is an example of what the vendor calls "smart-sourcing." An older term for the same thing is "out-tasking"the outsourcing of a discrete task rather than all operations. Doubtless, other firms will begin to appear shortly that will offer storage out-tasking services, but there are a few things to keep in mind as you evaluate options.
1. Be sure to know exactly what you're trying to accomplish, in practical terms, with an out-tasking strategy. Set a dollar cost-savings objective or other measurable description of success that will help you to evaluate the efficacy of the strategy once you've tried it for a while.
2. Avoid trying to codify in a contract every detail of the arrangement in advance. While certain service level minimums should be specified, together with legal remedies that will allow the arrangement to be terminated for cause, these are essentially imperfect working partnerships. As in a marriage, sound judgment and flexibility, rather than a codified litany of rules, regulations and remedies, are required if the partnership is to be sustained over time.
3. Have an escape route. If things don't work out as planned, be sure that you provide for a transition of service either to an alternate provider or to internal staff as part of your service agreement.
4. Pay close attention to security. The nice thing about the StorNet offering is that all transactions between the vendor and customer essentially stop at the company firewall. Considering the many weaknesses and vulnerabilities that are being exposed daily in Web servers, browsers and protocols, you don't want to provide any inroads to hackers that you can avoid.
5. Don't expect miracles. If you were having trouble managing your disjointed storage infrastructure, don't expect the outsourcer to fix things overnight. Such expectations set the stage for failed relationships before they start.
The nice thing about the StorNet solution is that it builds on what already exists: Excellent customer service by knowledgeable technical support personnel, and a best-of-breed SRM tool. That's a pretty smart basis on which to build a relationship to augment existing staff resources and to cut costs.
Most of the first generation storage service providers (SSPs), who came to the fore during the fat budgets of the 1990s, have since disappeared from the market. A couple, like Storability and StorageNetworks, are busy reinventing themselves as storage SLA management software providers. They discovered that the large enterprise customer wasn't interested in themjust their software. To many enterprise companies, storage is a crown jewel that they don't want to entrust to anyone else.
The middle tier of companies is another matter, however. These firmsFortune 500 wannabesface a different set of economic realities. They generally lack the staff and resources to manage their burgeoning storage effectively. To them, any extra set of qualified hands would be a godsend.
Fresh Air in Storage
That's why I thoroughly enjoyed a recent telephone briefing with StorNet, which provides customers with telephone-based services to help them resolve problems and make better use of their Legato and Veritas software products.
"We are a services-focused value added reseller (VAR)," says Chris Wilkes, vice president of managed services at StorNet. Over its 13 years, the Englewood, Colo.-based company has acquired several other regional VARs to become a national entity.
According to Wilkes, the company has always focused on shortening customers' downtime. Its latest venture into the world of storage monitoring services simply continues that missionits recently announced StorTrust Monitor service.
By using a service like StorNet's, you can selectively outsource just part of the storage problemthe part that's costing you the most money: Status monitoring and problem resolution. StorNet deploys its own StorTrust Monitor application to collect status information on the customer's installed storage platforms. In one strategy, the information is maintained at the customer location and referenced by StorNet tech support personnel whenever the customer calls in to report a problem. Or, the customer can opt to open a window to his storage on an ongoing basis to the StorNet network operations center (NOC). Doing so offloads to StorNet the responsibility for responding proactively to impending problems.
StorTrust Monitor is powered by a customized version of Tek-Tools' Storage Profiler, a best-of-breed storage resource management (SRM) application, and capitalizes on Dallas, Texas-based Tek-Tools' flexible deployment options. Using Storage Profiler's "agentless option," many types of storage platforms can be monitored and managed directly without incurring the server or network overhead of an agent-based framework. Alternatively, Tek-Tools' Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) agent option can be employed to gather status data on a broader range of equipment and processes, if desired. New XML-based capabilities under development at Tek-Tools will further increase the robustness of the solution, enabling the management of more kinds of storage and the automation of certain types of management tasks that are now done by hand.
At the end of the day, the StorTrust Monitor service doesn't offer a comprehensive solution to all of the costs of ownership in data storage. It doesn't pretend to be a silver bullet. StorTrust Monitor simply enhances the telephone-support services that customers are already accustomed to receiving from the VAR.
The solution does, however, attack one important TCO issue: downtime. Properly implemented, and leveraging the trend data reporting and status monitoring capabilities of Tek-Tools' SRM product, StorTrust Monitor might enable a proactive response to common error conditionspreventing them and the downtime they cause.
It's worth a look. Check out www.stornet.com and www.tek-tools.com for more information.
Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.