Overcoming resistance to centralized storage

Building a storage utility center requires storage consolidation as well as cooperative partnerships.

By Dick Benton

Centralization tends to scare nearly everyone who has ever experienced the process and its usual companions-bureaucracy and low service levels. This article addresses the business and human issues of overcoming resistance to change when data consolidation occurs under a storage utility model (sometimes referred to as a service provider model).

Consolidating storage under a utility model can deliver high levels of efficiency, but not without challenges. The challenges are often spread among technology, politics, and plain-old resistance to change.

In the “old” environment, data loss usually affected only a single application. However, in a utility environment that provides storage to many servers and applications, data from many applications can be consolidated onto a single array. As a result, data loss can impact dozens of applications and multiple business units.

In the old environment, data expansion was handled, often on a departmental level, simply by buying new servers and/or disk arrays. But a utility provides centralized storage on-demand to whomever and whenever it is requested. Worst of all, once you’ve centralized, you risk losing that old attachment to customers by becoming too busy executing policy and procedure to recognize and respond to unintended consequences. Just how do the distributed groups-your customers-see this centralization? Unfortunately, they often see it simply as a bureaucratic impediment to success.

Recognizing the concerns of the business units can help clear the hurdles to successful implementation for the storage utility or service provider model. The goal is to keep your business units happy, even as you pull out their storage and move it to a data center where it will be consolidated and operated by an “independent” IT function.

What’s a storage utility model?

A storage utility model is not just about providing storage on-demand. It is sometimes called a storage value model because it optimizes the cost and service levels of consolidated storage. The storage utility model can also be called a service provider model because it provides in-house services to business units under formal service level agreements (SLAs), often with carefully calculated costs that can sometimes be charged back to the business units.

And more recently, the tiered service approach is being seen as the primary building block for information life-cycle management (ILM). Whatever the term, a successful storage utility model is based on a four-point foundation:

  • The provision of service offerings in tiers of service, with each tier providing a higher level of service than the previous tier. The tiers of service typically include attributes of availability, performance, recovery, security, and archiving;
  • Provision of tiers of service under a signed SLA committing the service provider to defined levels of service, demonstrated by performance and quality metrics;
  • Provision of a cost model that provides a dollar cost for primary and related secondary storage that covers acquisition, operation, administration, and replacement costs over a fixed period, yielding a TCO figure; and
  • Provision of a set of mature management practices governing the planning, acquisition, and operation of the storage environment. This means documented policies and procedures, including compliance and quality metrics.

Centralization is not a pre-requisite to the storage utility model, but consolidation is. Storage need not be gathered in one place only, but it can be consolidated under a concept we call a storage utility center. The rationale for a storage utility center is to take away the sting of centralization and its handmaidens-bureaucracy and poor service-and replace it with an operational model that reflects key concerns of the business units, in particular, personalized service and responsiveness.

In most organizations with multiple campuses and pre-existing data centers, consolidating to a minimum of three storage utility centers can provide additional benefits in mutual support for business continuity, while keeping some aspect of the consolidation close to the business units.

Each storage utility center services a defined group of clients (business units) based on geographic, application, or line-of-business demarcation. This concept of consolidation provides key benefits, retaining some organizational boundaries as well as important links to business units that centralization and its associated bureaucracy are almost guaranteed to destroy.

A successful storage utility center is built on five principles:

Don’t centralize, do consolidate

Many larger organizations already support multiple campuses. Often each campus already has a data-center facility. Leveraging this resource into a secured storage utility center is a relatively simple task compared to the massive changes that centralization can trigger.

Consolidation is often less stressful on organizations than centralization. It provides an option for distributed resources logically based on geographic, business, or application drivers, yet still leverages the savings that come from centralization.

Storage utility centers will tend to be located on an existing campus where there is already a data center; however, different business drivers and application needs may require a storage utility center that is physically and logically discrete from the campus data center that houses local business functions.

Consolidation also leverages an organization’s ability to more cost-effectively position business continuance and disaster-recovery capabilities as part of a working production center rather than in a standby lights-out environment. In effect, disaster recovery can be integrated into the production environment where two out of three data centers will nearly always be available.

With the ideal scenario of having three storage utility centers, the cost of providing additional capacity for disaster recovery, even off-site backup retention, becomes an issue of leveraging existing infrastructure and perhaps bringing forward a capital investment plan by 6 to 12 months. This can be advantageous when compared to the alternative-expensive and inefficient deployment of a fully redundant storage resource at a dedicated disaster- recovery site.

Ensure the cost model is fair

The cost model supporting a storage utility must be demonstrably fair and reasonable and subject to regular review with business unit clients. Nothing can enrage a business unit as quickly as a cost model that results in the charge of a substantial sum each month with little apparent basis or explanation-particularly if it is considerably in excess of their perception of current costs.

Cost models need to be developed for each tier of service, and the method of accumulating the costs for each tier needs to be visible, if not actually presented to and explained to the business units. Many business units’ understanding of storage costs is limited to primary storage. For consolidation to succeed users have to understand the formulas used to develop the number of additional copies needed for backup, archiving, disaster recovery, development, test, and quality assurance. Often, secondary storage needs will be 20 to 50 times primary storage.

The administrative overhead for storage also must be clearly presented to users. Whatever parameters are used, the model should be developed with the idea that it will be necessary to present and explain it in simple terms to the business units. Showing key ratios can help a business unit understand the way these costs are developed. Such ratios might include the number of storage administrators per technology, number of technologies per administrator, number of provisioning/change activities per administrator, and number of alerts/incidents a storage administrator can manage.

Many cost models also include a “profit” percentage to provide funds for growth, unexpected events, price increases, shortages, etc. A lump charge of 10% or 15% will cause all sorts of heartburn in the business unit. It may be worthwhile to consider an alternate method of funding such events, as it is extremely difficult to explain and sell this type of generic loading. If there is no option, opening the books and showing the detailed rationale may help.

The more a business unit understands about the cost model, the more likely users will be able to understand and work within the numbers, acting as customers who see the value for their money rather than as resentful clients of an uncaring third party.

Finally, having an organizational policy that requires business units to select the appropriate tier of service for their business unit and to account for the cost of that tier in their business model can only be implemented if the business units see the cost model as reasonable and fair. This policy is key to the alignment of IT and the business units as partners committed to common organizational goals.

Operate independently of any business unit

The enterprise storage utility center must operate in a secure environment. One of the keys to business unit acceptance of consolidation into a storage utility center is the ability to successfully demonstrate that the business unit’s data is insulated and protected from all other business units and any outside interests, including vendors and competitors.

The storage utility center must maintain logical security demarcation between each business unit’s data according to a defined SLA. Security of the business unit’s data must be documented.

Physical entry is normally secured in most data centers; however, the storage utility center’s access list, and the policy and procedure for gaining access, must be documented and under continuous audit and review to satisfy other business units’ concerns. Also, storage utility center staff must be freed of any specific business unit or business division control.

Finally, it may be necessary to document and demonstrate physical as well as logical demarcation lines between various business units’ data. This can compromise some of the savings that come from consolidated storage; however, satisfying the customer ensures a successful service provider model. Formally and repetitively presenting the security methods, techniques, and technologies to the business units can go a long way toward mitigating concerns in this area.

Culture of service

The storage utility center must place special emphasis on training, monitoring, and supporting a high-response, service-oriented culture. Understanding and delivering the service level and responsiveness required by client business units are critical to the success of the storage utility model.

Many business units have had bad experiences with centralization and the problems that can come from an unresponsive central bureaucracy. Their current environment is often one of operational pressure where responsiveness and reaction times are essential. Loss of this level of service is often the key concern of the business units that are subject to having their data consolidated and placed under control of an apparent third party, albeit one within the organization.

The success of a storage utility center depends on addressing this issue and convincing business units that service and response levels can be maintained or improved. Setting SLAs and making MTTR (mean time to respond) a key performance indicator can go a long way to easing the concerns of business units.

The management practices required under the storage utility model will improve service levels as processes become repeatable, documented, and subject to quality metrics.

Clarity of compliance policy

A storage utility center must accurately represent-and publish-the additional costs associated with compliance. It is important to have a policy that requires the business unit to not only fund, but also to demonstrate, compliance with all appropriate regulations related to storage. Often, executives will take shortcuts and balance risks to achieve their objectives. If these shortcuts involve avoidance of compliance, the organization can be exposed to significant penalties.

Compliance costs must be a compulsory component of the business unit’s profitability model. For those business units that avoid use of storage utility services, there must be in place an organizational-level policy requiring that the business unit’s executive certify that operations conform to all compliance requirements in the areas of data protection, retention, and security. Identification and accounting of such independent storage costs must be specifically included in the business model proposal and should be subject to a compliance office audit.

By developing policies and operating procedures to support the five principles of the storage utility center, you can avoid the nightmares that come from resistance to change. There is nothing worse than building a centralized storage environment and finding that most business units do not want to migrate their data to it. The concepts behind the storage utility center-consolidation, fair cost models for each tier, independence from any single business unit, a service-oriented culture, and compliance-will lead to a service provider with strong business unit partnerships.

Dick Benton is a senior consultant with GlassHouse Technologies (www.glasshouse.com) in Framingham, MA.

This article was originally published on January 01, 2005