Buyers' guide: Storage Arrays

Investing tens of thousands of dollars on a storage array is not a process to be taken lightly. It is, however, an opportunity to set the organisation up with a sound and scalable storage strategy that continues to provide savings down the track.

Intelligent Business Research Services (IBRS) analyst, Kevin McIsaac, has just finished a storage audit for a customer and spoke with Computerworld about what he believes is a good approach.

Step 1 – Do an audit and make a forward looking data picture

“By an audit, I mean not to simply come in and look at the hardware you have on the floor,” he said. “You do need to know the hardware and servers, but you also need to drill into that hardware and know how much capacity is assigned to your servers. Of the capacity assigned to the servers, how much is actually used?” he asked. “The other thing is to have a look at the data or used capacity on those servers. Next is a step almost nobody does — ask what kind of data it is. I like to talk about it in terms of storage service levels.”

For McIsaac, this means breaking down the data into different categories based on the service levels the organisation expects to achieve or receive.

“Which service levels do you care about? Not I/O per second and all that technical mumbo jumbo that the technical guys tend to get lost in,” he said. “It is what the business cares about — hours of availability, recovery time, recovery point, and you need to understand if it is archive, transactional, read only, or things like streaming video.

“Go through your applications to find out what you have. You then need to understand the capacity of each of those things and what the growth forecast is for the next three to four years. That may take some time, but it is time well spent as this information will set you up for later negotiations.”

McIsaac then creates a spreadsheet of the data picture and assigns labels based on importance: Platinum for high-value data that needs to be available 24/7 with no data loss and back within four hours; Gold; Silver (for things like archive); and even Bronze if necessary.

“Group the data into a small number of classes — that is classes of data, not classes of disk.”

And this is a key point. The classes are based on the data, not the technology. From here, you can sum up all the capacity and growth rates. The result is you have a picture that says you need X amount of terabytes in Platinum, X amount in Gold and X amount for Silver year by year. Write this up as a storage strategy document.

Now you understand your data you can go to the vendors with a tender.

Step 2 — Go to tender, but ask for proposals

This step can usually be split in two ways — specify the requirements through a request for tender. Or do a request for proposals. McIsaac prefers the latter as it allows the organisation to evaluate a much broader range of solutions.

“Take your storage strategy document and say, ‘here are my requirements, we have the following current systems, capacity, servers and applications — it looks like this’,” McIsaac said.

“You tell me the actual configuration of your stuff using all this new innovation you have got, using all the latest stuff that I don’t know about.”

The vendors should come back with a proposal in the allotted time. It is harder to assess a proposal as opposed to a specified request for tender, McIsaac said, but it is worth going down this path.

“Usually, I like to have them in for three hours each and you only go to a short list. My view is you pick the four major technology vendors you want to deal with.”

Clearly, you don’t want to go to 30 suppliers as this simply eats up time and makes the process all the more complex.

“Then you say, here is the deal, we want X terabytes — do you want to bid directly or do you want to go through a partner? If they want to go through a partner, that is fine, but they should put up the partner.”

If the organisation is happy with the suggested partner then that is great. But it is better to have one vender and one partner, not more.

“What I want them to show me at the end is they have understood my requirements and that they propose a solution that will fit my requirements,” McIsaac explained. “And when they have done all those things, I then want to look at which solution best meets my requirements. I need to be very careful to understand whether my requirements are cost or something else. That something else might be recoverability, it might be ease of management. But I need to understand what I am going to measure them on.

“Then I go through and pick the vendor I like the most. I tell them up front I am going to pick a preferred vendor and will go into a negotiation with them and, if that negotiation falls over, I will contact the others.”

Step 3 — Negotiate and focus on capacity upgrades

During the negotiation with your chosen vendor it is important to give feedback to tell them what they did wrong and where they could improve because they may just be able to adjust the proposal and be your best choice. Once this phase is over, it is time to go onto final configurations, pricing terms and conditions.

“If it is something you really like, sign the deal and tell everyone they are out. If not, you move onto number two vendor,” McIsaac said. “Possibly, the most important thing to negotiate around is capacity upgrades. Where vendors make a lot of their money is they sell you stuff at a reasonable price but the upgrade prices are very high. I like to have what you might like to call a storage options contract.”

This represents the right to buy but not the obligation. So when your storage needs grow you will have a pre-negotiated price.

“I’m saying right now I need 80 terabytes but over the next three years we believe that will treble to a quarter of a petabyte and I expect to be buying on these schedules, which we have outlined. What I want from the vendor is the right to buy disk on a pre-negotiated price,” he said. “They might say we are offering you this deal today and we are taking 30 per cent off our normal price. Most people would say that is fine.

“But I want to see is that price come down over time, as storage comes down over time. I want my 30 per cent discount but I want it 30 per cent discount to whatever that storage costs on the day. Or I want that price to decline 10 or 7 per cent per quarter. The idea is 12 quarters out I might be saving myself 30 per cent.”

In short, you need to exploit the commodity curve and avoid having to pay too much upfront. There will always be other factors to take into account, but the key messages in this guide should always be kept in mind when buying a storage array: Conduct an audit of your data; consider undertaking a request for proposals; and negotiate to ensure you get a good deal that continues to pay off as your capacity requirements increase.

This article first appeared in the October/November print edition of Computerworld

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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