Evaluating SAN professional services

Posted on December 01, 2000

Need help deploying a best-of-breed SAN solution? Professional service providers can lay the cornerstone for success.


While IT managers are inundated with demands from data-hungry users, they are also bombarded by an increasing number of vendors carrying the Holy Grail of storage area networks (SANs). Any IT manager knows by now that a SAN could potentially cure many of the most painful IT headaches. However, overworked and understaffed IT departments usually don't have the time or resources to evaluate, design, and deploy a SAN in-house.

IT managers know what they need from SANs: simplicity, high availability, and storage management on-the-fly-all at a lower total cost of ownership. Most want the advantages of a best-of-breed solution, whether acquired from a single vendor or multiple sources. Even if an IT group has the rare luxury of ample technical personnel, SANs are so new that in-house expertise is usually scarce. Once a decision to investigate SAN technology has been made, it may be time to call in third parties. Using professional services helps to augment in-house technical resources throughout the project cycle, transferring some of the risk to the service provider and providing a single point of focus for all project-management activities.

SAN professional services are available for all phases of a SAN project, including assessment, design, testing, implementation, and ongoing operations support. The future of an IT organization's success may turn on the decisions made during the assessment and design phases. CIOs have not been faced with such technology adoption risk since the 1980s, when they were in the throes of transitioning from mainframes to client/server computing. Since then, large vendors have revamped their professional services, and smaller vendors have added comprehensive IT consulting services to their offerings.

Demand for IT professional services is so strong that even the traditional consulting groups of accounting firms are strengthening their ties to computer technology companies (e.g., Cisco's alliance with KPMG). Another indicator of the increase in outsourced IT services is the preponderance of systems integrators, value-added resellers, and consultants that has recently developed. All of these organizations bring different strengths and skill sets to the equation-and usually hefty price tags. The purchase of systems now often goes hand-in-hand with the purchase of consulting services, and sorting out the relative benefits of professional services can often be as confusing as technology decisions.

Storage and platform vendors, systems integrators, and independent consulting firms offer different professional services, ranging from needs assessment to outsourced storage management. Medium to large-sized corporations have historically engaged third-party implementation, conversion, and support services to augment their IT operations. Typically, these services are executed by specialized systems engineers, alleviating the need for potentially long staffing and training cycles. However, when a company needs help in assessing its storage management requirements and designing a SAN solution, especially in e-business environments, the required expertise goes beyond conventional systems engineering to a composite of technical knowledge, business analysis ability, strategic planning, and long-term technology and market vision.

Given the number of SAN solutions available and vendors that sell them, there are many possible configurations that could be proposed for any given set of end-user requirements. Before talking to a professional service provider, a potential SAN customer should have a clear understanding of the capabilities that a SAN can provide:

  • Centralized management of all enterprise storage assets;
  • Storage sharing, including disk and tape pooling;
  • LAN-free and server-less backup/restore;
  • Any-to-any connectivity between servers and storage devices;
  • Data sharing among heterogeneous platforms; and
  • Boundless capacity and bandwidth scalability.

All of these capabilities are available today. However, companies still hesitate to deploy SANs for a variety of reasons, including risk of failure during the transition period, skepticism about interoperability, and cost. No single vendor supplies all of the SAN hardware and software under its own brand. However, through partnerships and alliances, there are many options for one-stop shopping. Unless an IT organization has a clear idea of its SAN goals, using professional services for needs assessment and SAN design is a good place to start.

Before retaining a professional services organization for storage needs assessment and SAN design, IT organizations should do their own appraisal. A 10-step plan defines a practical approach to SAN deployment (see p. 30). Even if a professional services team will be used to develop a deployment plan, IT should first familiarize itself with the 10 steps and generate data and ideas to support the plan.

It's rare to find an enterprise built entirely on a single vendor's platforms, although one vendor usually dominates the installed base. The need to preserve legacy equipment may be a significant factor in developing a SAN strategy. On the other hand, some IT managers may opt to start from ground zero and replace existing storage and server systems with a completely new environment. Yet others will replace some systems and preserve or re-deploy others. The elements of an existing IT environment are major criteria in building a SAN strategy. It is necessary to combine these factors with those involving current and future technology when selecting a professional services organization.

There are four main categories of professional services vendors in the storage industry:

Platform vendors. Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, for example, have sweeping SAN initiatives and a full range of storage-related professional services. Each vendor also offers its own storage hardware and software and resells complementary products such as Fibre Channel switches from other vendors to round out the SAN solution. It's safe to assume these vendors have the highest level of expertise and the deepest resources for supporting their own products. It's an even safer assumption that the needs-assessment portion of a professional services project will result in a recommendation that you need a "best-of-breed" SAN solution built entirely on the vendor's hardware and software platforms. This could be the way to go if SAN benefits can be optimized while preserving legacy assets and in-house expertise. The tradeoff is vendor lock-in, not only with pricing structures, but also with a single vendor's long-term storage vision.

Storage management software vendors. Computer Associates, Legato, and Veritas are the major independent storage software vendors that offer a comprehensive set of professional services, either with their own staff or through partners. As with platform vendors, a decision to go with professional services from one of these vendors may be based on success with products currently in use. Another factor could be the growing importance of software in defining a SAN infrastructure. Yet another reason could be the software vendor's position of hardware vendor neutrality. In this instance, beware of the wolf in sheep's clothing. Certainly, there will be more options when selecting servers and storage devices, but don't expect complete neutrality. A storage management software platform preference could drive the choice for professional services, but make sure the expertise of the consulting team extends to all aspects of the storage infrastructure.

Storage systems vendors. The big players here are vendors such as EMC and Hitachi Data Systems (HDS). Again, installed base can play a big part in the selection of professional services. Even more compelling can be the plethora of the vendor's partnerships and facilities for interoperability testing. Long-term vision and openness are the watchwords when evaluating professional services proposals from a storage systems vendor. Also, understanding where the storage management intelligence lies could prevent unnecessary lock-in to storage-device architecture.

Storage systems integrators (SSIs) and consulting firms. There are two types of these companies: those that resell products and those that don't. In either case, their primary focus is storage. Both types have the potential to be the most pure in terms of vendor neutrality, although some will specialize in certain hardware or software platforms. Others, through a myriad of partnerships, may offer the broadest choice of products.

Storage systems integrators that provide end-to-end solutions should have the ability to perform interoperability testing on a variety of heterogeneous or homogeneous configurations. They also should have staffs with the diversity and depth that SAN design and support require. An example of an SSI gaining industry prominence is SanOne. Data Storage Technologies and IT Centrix, for instance, are consulting firms that provide a spectrum of services but do not resell products. When SSIs or consulting firms don't have particular allegiances or incentives from vendors, a true best-of-breed SAN solution could be the result. However, if an IT organization wants to go the distance with this type of provider, particularly if it's a small organization, then it should research it thoroughly to ensure the firm has the resources, facilities, stability, and vision to become a partner for the long run.

No matter which professional services organizations are under consideration, selection should be made on the basis of its ability to deliver the six core capabilities of SANs listed previously and to effectively execute the 10 steps of SAN deployment. In addition, the optimal SAN professional services provider should be evaluated according to the following key criteria:

Ability to assess total cost of ownership (TCO). TCO goes far beyond acquisition and operating costs. Predictions should include both hard and soft dollars and account for risk. If a vendor cannot demonstrate that TCO will be significantly reduced over the current server-attached storage methods, then the solution may not deliver on the promise of SANs.

SAN solution provider's vision in line with IT's technology and business plans. The SAN should be able to evolve with a company's changing business needs. Moreover, the IT organization should feel absolutely certain the vendor has the ability to execute on the vision. Do reality checks on how far vendors have gone in terms of fulfilling their SAN initiatives, how well they have kept to their proposed product schedules, and how much technology they can demonstrate versus how much is chalk talk.

Know the abilities of the professional services team. Inquire about the background, knowledge, and skills of all team members. Are they all up to the task, or do you have a stellar team leader with a group of inexperienced underlings? Are the skills of a professional services organization concentrated in one area when you may want to employ them for other aspects of a SAN project?

Interoperability assurance. The test plan will make or break a SAN project. Analyze the benefits and drawbacks of in-house versus off-site interoperability testing. Consider whether service performance level agreements are appropriate for the testing phase of a SAN project.

Designing and deploying a SAN is a huge step for any IT organization, and choosing the right professional services provider will help to lay the foundation for SAN success. To determine which type of professional services provider is best, IT managers should review the entire spectrum of offerings and measure each of them with a common yardstick in respect to the criteria most relevant to their particular requirements. Only then will IT managers be able to find the partner that best fits the needs of such an important technological undertaking.

Harriett Bennett is a freelance writer in Kirkland, WA.

Ten steps to SAN planning and deployment

  1. Identify "must-have" SAN capabilities during the initial phase of server-centric to storage-centric migration.
  2. Define which server assets will be used and which servers will be retired in Phase 1 deployment.
  3. Determine which applications will operate in the SAN environment during Phase 1.
  4. Determine and define data "sharing" requirements.
  5. Determine which storage management platform will become the standard for your SAN.
  6. Define initial storage capacities and volume requirements for each node (server) and the applications/services that it supports.
  7. Define disaster tolerance requirements for critical applications, services, and data.
  8. Determine which applications and services will be used in either high-availability or scalability SAN-cluster scenarios.
  9. Define your deployment timetable for SAN setup and switchover.
  10. Develop and establish test scenarios and fire drills for determining and testing your SAN.