Case In Point: How Storage Management Vendors Should Support Customers

Forbes.com CTO Mike Smith reveals how a solution from Tek-Tools took into account a customer's needs and preferences to solve a common storage problem—capacity management.

Too often today, storage management software vendors approach their customers with an eye toward “Relationship building” (with a capital R). The customer calls the vendor with a specific problem and ends up with everything but a solution.

Sometimes it starts with unsolicited schmoozing: an invitation to dinner or golf with the vendor’s management or sales team. Then there is the on-going e-mail spam regarding educational or recreational activities sponsored by the vendor, or, in some cases, the veritable harassment of the customer by marketing drones for the vendor soliciting endorsements in press releases or trade press articles.

The probability of being subjected to this kind of relationship-building effort increases exponentially when the customer has the brand name recognition of Forbes.

Forbes.com provides the online face for Forbes, a respected name in financial industry news. The company hails itself as “a leading Internet media company…among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders.” Forbes.com continues this theme by providing real-time original reporting on business, technology, investing and lifestyle; stock and mutual fund quotes; comprehensive company profiles; a wide array of interactive tools, calculators and databases, including People Tracker and the annual Forbes lists; a Lifestyle section that currently focuses on high-end vehicles, collecting, real estate and travel; and the complete online editions of Forbes' magazines.

Visitors to Forbes.com include “the largest group of C-level executives (CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and CIOs) online,” according to Forbes.com Chief Technology Officer Mike Smith. Numbers of visitors to the site are in the millions each month, Smith says, and those numbers can spike dramatically when Forbes.com publishes various lists, such as the World’s Billionaires, 400 Richest Americans, Top Earning Dead Celebrities, and Top 100 Celebrities.

All in all, Smith is a busy guy, whose primary objective is to develop new products for the company that can be fielded in the market at a profit. When he has a problem, such as a storage capacity management issue, he doesn’t want to develop a new relationship. He just wants the problem fixed so he can maintain his focus on the business.

Smith and his IT team handle technology, customer service, and other operations for the company. They maintain a private line network connecting end users in five U.S. offices, but the operational headquarters of their business is in New York City. According to Smith, company operations are hosted on a hybrid server infrastructure.

“We have a hybrid environment, including Web servers representing a mixture of UNIX and Microsoft Windows operating environments. In addition to Windows, we have Sun Solaris, FreeBSD, Linux and others. Our server hardware includes many prominent vendors, including Dell Computers and Sun Microsystems.”

Smith says that members of his staff are tasked with software development and IT operations management. Much of their effort is dedicated to improving site efficiency and implementing innovative technology to improve the quality of services provided by Forbes.com.

According to the CTO, several terabytes of data storage are in use to support executables, registrant data, and web page storage for Forbes.com. “Over a terabyte of storage is on four Network Appliance Filers, over a terabyte is on small direct-attached Sun Microsystem arrays, and a growing volume of data from e-mail and customer relationship management systems that primarily support our intranet is deployed to a Compaq storage area network (SAN).”

Like many companies, Smith said his storage infrastructure evolved over time with application requirements in mind. “Network Appliance filers provided fast file-based storage for our Web contents, while the Sun arrays provided good database repositories for registrant data and provided centralized storage for executables. The Compaq SAN provided a scalable hardware repository for Outlook and Exchange mail and CRM, where data grows quickly.”

Despite the careful planning and selection of storage technology, he says his operations staff was still being called off-hours to respond to storage capacity issues. He recalls, “We needed to find a solution fast…that would provide us with a trouble-free, no-maintenance infrastructure [so] we could focus [on] our main task of developing content and coming up with innovative products to sell.”

Considering that the storage resource management market has grown to nearly 250 vendors, it was impossible for Smith to demo all of the competing solutions available. “One of our partner vendors said that Tek-Tools had a product worth looking at,” Smith says. “Plus, they were a new streamlined company hungry to please their customers. All of that sounded good to us.”

Smith contacted Tek-Tools the same day that his vendor partner made the recommendation. He was very pleased with what he discovered.

“We choose suppliers who help us to keep the business moving and we assessed their merits based on raw performance. Tek-Tools was very supportive of that model.”

Smith says he was pleased that the vendor didn’t require Forbes.com to meet with Tek-Tools’ management. “Tek-Tools was contacted in the morning, came in that day, installed the Storage Profiler SRM software, and we saw immediate results.”

He adds that he was relieved to learn about the improved management capability afforded by Storage Profiler, as well as the alleviation of pressure on his operations staff. Mike Chaddock, director or operations on Smith’s team, echoes the sentiment.

Chaddock reports that Storage Profiler enabled the monitoring of DAS, SAN, RAID and NAS Filers from a central location. “The product will page us if necessary, but instead of running into the office, we can actually log in and monitor it from anywhere via a Web interface.”

Today, he says, Storage Profiler monitors “everything from CPU utilization of eight different types of servers to database utilization statistics. We can even look at network loading with Storage Profiler.”

Chaddock also reports that the historical data generated by Storage Profiler is proving useful for capacity planning. The results of the original product deployment were sufficiently compelling that the operations team expanded the scope of the Storage Profiler implementation by including their SAN in the mix of storage platforms managed by the product.

“After about a week in production,” Smith says, “we saw the potential for using the tool to manage all of our storage—not just direct-attached and network-attached, but our SAN as well. Since then, I have seen the software put to good use in a lot of ways. My operations staff is happy so I am happy.”

The bottom line: customer relationships are best built on the basis of solution delivery and execution. All the glad-handing and golf in the world are no substitute for delivering a product that solves the customer’s immediate problem.

If you have a story to tell, please contact this column to share your experience. Address your e-mail to jpowell@101com.com.

About the Author

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.