Do storage vendors really sell hardware anymore? I'd say no. They sell solutions, value-add services, software, maintenance and so forth. Whatever they call it, you still need to store, protect, back up and archive your data on something.
Like many consultants, I previously worked as an IT director and a vendor. When I made a fairly significant career move to a storage vendor, I remember my data-center compatriots remarking that I was going over to the dark side.
The contrast between the customer and vendor sides of the purchasing table is amazing. I quickly realized how many US$1 million-plus storage purchases I had made where I left something - many times a significant something - on the table. The bottom line: It's all about leverage; when you have it as a customer, you need to use it.
There are hundreds of tips and techniques to get the most out of your next storage purchase, but the advice that follows is a good starting point. It's often about more than just lowering the overall price. I'm not advocating negotiating deal after deal in which the vendors lose money - that's not good for either party.
Margins can be pretty significant, however, sometimes well over 50 percent on list price. If you can get more when you're spending big bucks, it can make you a hero in many eyes, from the CFO to the CTO.
Understand the objectives
When making a large storage purchase, the two most important internal responsibilities are to create and follow a detailed process, and to have the subject-matter expertise necessary to keep you from being led in the wrong technology or product direction.
The bigger the purchase, the more leverage you have. Chances are you won't have a lot of influence when you are negotiating a purchase of additional disk drives to put into an existing storage array.
On the other hand, you'll get a lot of attention from vendors if you are migrating a large server farm or data center with direct-attached storage into a consolidated storage-area network (SAN). For big companies, such a purchase typically costs in the seven-figure range. Understand your leverage in the purchasing process and take control from start to finish.
Have realistic expectations
It's absolutely amazing the amount of time and resources that the purchase process and procedures take. At a high level, the tasks include selecting participating vendors, finalizing confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, and distributing an intent to respond (ITR), which is the first document that goes out to vendors about your purchase.
The ITR provides your expectations for the project, establishes the ground rules for communications, and schedules the multiple vendor meetings and presentations. Program and project management can be a full-time job. From start to finish, including providing adequate time for responses, a midsize purchase project can take two months or more.
Know your requirements
An RFP is the cornerstone of a large storage purchase. Too often, RFPs ask about technology rather than dictating it - an important difference. Also, too often overlooked are the time and the subject-matter expertise and experience it takes to write an effective RFP. Mapping your requirements to available technologies is crucial.
A storage reference architecture, which notes the current and desired future state of the storage environment, is essential to a successful purchase.
If you don't have a good understanding of what you want, take a step back and distribute a request for information (RFI). The RFI will help you decide on the best technology product and then will act as the homework required to make rock-solid the future-state storage reference architecture.
If you don't take the time upfront to do this, it is highly probable the project will fail. As an example, how can anyone effectively rank and gauge an RFP response when one vendor is proposing a Fibre Channel SAN and the other is proposing a storage network based on iSCSI? How can those two proposals be compared when the technologies are fundamentally different? A solid reference architecture will ensure that all proposals are based upon the same technology set, fostering an apples-to-apples comparison.
Don't be apprehensive about requiring line-item pricing, and make sure you weigh and rank your questions and responses before you distribute an RFP. While they may seem like simple common sense, both these steps are frequently overlooked.
To vendors, line-item pricing is like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard. They don't want to tell you the price of everything they are proposing, because it reveals where the margins are and what makes up the overall price.
You will be amazed at the fluctuations in price among similar (or even exactly the same) components from different vendors, including disk drives, cache, maintenance and software licensing structures.
For example, some storage-array vendors price replication software based on the total amount of storage in the array, but others base it either on volume tiers or on just the total amount of storage being replicated. Another example of fluctuation is the duration and cost of software maintenance. Maintenance in a hardware purchase can vary from as little as 90 days to as much as three years.
Recognize that there are questions in your RFP that are just informational and others that are fundamental to your requirements for features and functionality. Make sure you prioritize your questions - from most important to nice to know - according to how much weight their answers will carry. Doing this will greatly assist your analysis of proposals and dramatically speed your decision-making process.
There are so many more tips and techniques to discuss, but column size constraints don't allow exploring those now. I often speak at storage trade shows on this topic, and hope to see you at one soon.
In summary, when embarking on your next storage purchase, determine the resources, time, and effort that it will take. Use outside help if necessary. Quantifying the return on investment to your management isn't difficult - I've seen as much as ten times ROI on larger deals. Analogous to your old school days, the more time you invested in studying for a test, the better your test scores were.
Understanding the process and putting in the time up front will yield many benefits. Even more importantly, all this up-front work will make your overall job easier both before the check is cut and after the stuff shows up on the dock.
Peldzus is director of storage architecture at GlassHouse Technologies. He has more than 20 years of storage experience, leads large consulting engagements, and speaks and writes often on storage topics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.