Outsourcing SANs: What Is the Best Way to Build and Manage a SAN?

SANs can provide a highly manageable, scalable and available infrastructure for corporate information. SANs make it possible to share information and data on an unprecedented level, and is becoming a major factor in the essential infrastructure to support the growing demands of e-commerce systems. Despite the increasing popularity of SANs, the question remains: What is the best way to build and manage a SAN?

In the absence of standards, there is no optimal SAN solution. Careful needs assessment, education, customization and integration by third parties is virtually a prerequisite.

As the SAN infrastructure scales to embrace data storage for an entire enterprise, business processes may need to be refined to capitalize on the strengths that shared data access provides. Also, new processes may be required to ensure the integrity and security of sensitive corporate data in a new storage infrastructure setting.

Businesses that need SANs, but do not want to worry about designing, building and maintaining storage systems, may seek independent outside assistance to address the problem.

Selecting Outside Help

The sales engineering support teams of SAN product vendors are often well schooled in the products offered by their employers and may possess significant experience in the deployment of these particular products. This is good news, unless a more future-oriented solution requires more than a single vendor’s support team can provide.

A SAN is an unusual technology that limits the capability of any single vendor to provide a best-of-breed solution comprised entirely of its own products. Even the most proprietary SAN solutions offered today contain the components of multiple vendors. This can lead to finger-pointing and costly delays when implementation issues arise.

Most major players in the SAN market depend extensively on their channel sales organizations (resellers, ISVs, etc.) to deploy SAN technology. IDC analysts have argued that SAN revenue will be driven largely through channel sales, rather than direct sales. Resellers, whose sales and support organizations are focused either geographically or in specific vertical market segments, will be able to provide the greatest measure of customer service, that is prerequisite to a sale.

Resellers, however, confront many of the same limitations as their vendor business partners when it comes to SAN technology. They are generally experts in the vendor’s products, and less knowledgeable about the third-party gear included in the vended solution. All of the interoperability testing performed by vendors prior to the fielding of a solution is meaningless the first time that a new problem arises.

Many vendors and resellers also lack the hybrid skills set required for successful SAN deployment. Infrastructure expertise, both in storage and networking, is required to design a suitable SAN. In the few cases where cross-disciplinary knowledge and skills are present, a technological myopia may persist, regarding the range of possible alternatives – usually along vendor-specific lines.

The tendency of vendors to favor their own branded solutions goes without saying, of course. Competition will ultimately benefit consumers by improving technology. Homogeneous SAN solutions may provide exactly the right fit for a business unit within a company. But, a problem will arise when a company seeks to scale a SAN to a heterogeneous enterprise environment. Some vendors of storage arrays and servers see this possibility as a threat to their own profitability.

Critical Success Factors

Some of the criteria that should guide the selection of a storage infrastructure consultant include:

Vendor Independence. The consulting organization should be able to evaluate business requirements and suggest best-of-breed solutions, without bias. Consultants should partner with a broad spectrum of product vendors, in order to provide a fair and factual representation of the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

Education and Training Programs. The consulting organization should offer technology and hands-on training programs within the storage arena.

Enterprise Infrastructure Expertise. The consulting company should possess hands-on experience, not only with primordial SAN technology, but also with other aspects of the enterprise infrastructure, such as mission-critical applications, networks and server technologies. The skills and knowledge derived from SAN-related engagements needs to be integrated into the knowledge-base and methodology shared by all field consultants within the organization, and transferred to client company personnel, over time, in the form of training and education.

Storage Infrastructure Rather than SAN Focus. By current estimates, SANs will likely proliferate over the next decade. However, in most businesses, SANs will coexist for the foreseeable future with other data storage architectures.

Outsourcer Methodology

In addition to the derivative criteria just described, a firm’s methodology and ongoing education and maintenance programs play significant roles in the development of a successful SAN architecture.

Effective consulting firms derive methodologies from experience – both in the lab and in the trenches. Methodology provides project leaders and consultants with access to the collective knowledge and experience of the organization, derived from its engagements. To most firms, it is a powerful discriminator.

When evaluating a consultant as a potential partner in a SAN implementation, examine the firm’s methodology closely. It should contain the following components, at a minimum:

Needs Assessment. There are numerous approaches to identifying the business problem or requirement that is driving a technology search. The consultant should have an approach that embraces problem definition, current business process modeling, cost analysis, solution budgeting, solution objectives setting and service level requirements setting. In the case of SANs, the consultant should be able to assist in the preparation of requests for proposal from vendors and reseller/integrators that articulate objectives and critical success factors.

SAN Design. In some cases, the consultant may also serve as an integrator, especially if all required ingredients of the solution cannot be obtained from a single source. The methodology should provide standards for articulating solutions in terms of topology, architectural components, performance characteristics and support requirements. While problem solving methodologies suggest a tactical focus, consultants should provide, as part of their deliverables, a strategic plan or road map suggesting how current solutions may be scaled and integrated as company needs change over time.

Implementation and Verification. The consultant/integrator’s methodology should provide project management and implementation guidance. Techniques, such as piloting, parallel testing, verification and cutover should be defined for a SAN implementation in at least as much detail as one would plan for a major network or systems infrastructure change.

Performance Measurement. No SAN implementation is complete without comprehensive performance measurement, both at the time of deployment and on an ongoing basis.

Education and Maintenance

Training and education, as well as ongoing service and support capabilities, should be key factors in consultant selection to guarantee that knowledge will be transferred from the consulting firm to internal IT staffs.

SAN deployments must be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. The company must work to transition personnel to new data access methods. Of equal importance, IT personnel must be educated about SANs, how the technology works and what problems it can solve. The purpose should not be to position the SAN as a cure-all, but to facilitate an understanding of the storage infrastructure and the requirements for its effective management.

Support services should also be a deciding factor in consultant selection. Once the SAN implementation is complete, support and maintenance services become critical for maintaining optimal performance of the engineered solution. The support services firm should be willing to assume responsibility for any difficulties that may arise.

Editor’s Note: For a counter view of the state of SAN, see Jon William Toigo’s "Data Warehousing and SANs."

About the Author: Ronald E.R. Lovell II is Principal Consultant for Polaris Inc.