10 ways to get the best storage price

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The words "Do more with less" have become cliché in IT, yet year after year storage managers must embark on cost-cutting initiatives such as "right-sizing," technology refreshes and consolidation.

To get the most value from your storage dollar, you have to stay flexible. Storage vendors spend a lot of money developing products to draw customers into their lair, and the bait often takes the form of proprietary replication tools that require significant integration expense, management GUIs that don't embrace industry standards like the Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S), and so-called "integrated" software that works only with products from the same vendor.

A healthy dose of vendor competition is the key to getting the best price: Once you begin buying proprietary storage, you give up the power to choose and any negotiation becomes a farce. Use the following 10 steps to avoid vendor traps, lower storage prices and retain critical flexibility.

1. Have the courage to select the best product.
Choosing the best product at the best price is surprisingly subjective and difficult. Weigh all the factors and consult with other managers and technical teams to determine what will work for your company in the long run. Make the decision, announce the results and don't look back.

2. Build a repeatable request for proposal (RFP) process.
Make sure all bidders know they have a shot at your business. Don't allow second-chance bids; vendors should give you their best price upfront. Hidden costs often lie in maintenance expenses and upgrades, so specify the desired support options. Create a matrix of relevant specifications, submit them to suppliers and ask them to provide line-item pricing. Bidders should also provide an example bid for upgrading the storage array with more capacity, and confirm that they're willing to commit to the same pricing for a period of nine months to a year. They'll work harder if they know that winning the RFP means repeat business without more RFP fuss.

3. Develop nondisruptive migrations.
Spend as much money and effort as necessary to enable nondisruptive migrations from one storage device to another, regardless of its manufacturer. Most modern OSes ship with a decent volume manager. If not, there are several hardware-agnostic volume manager tools to choose from.

4. Don't use array-specific replication tools.
Most array-based replication tools are expensive, complex and take considerable integration effort. The battle to remain vendor-agnostic will be lost as soon as it's easier to buy the same vendor's disk, even when it no longer provides the best value. Host- and SAN-based replication tools have come a long way, so use them.

5. Buy on your terms.
Get better at capacity planning; storage purchases should never be rushed. A 90-day lead time is usually enough to make the best choice based on price, service and technology. Timing the purchase order with the supplier's end of quarter will usually net an even better price.

6. Use an internal procurement team.
Consider using an internal procurement team or a third-party mediator to execute the RFP; this will isolate you from vendor bellyaching. The separation of powers will keep personal relationships with incumbents from influencing the results.

7. Invest only in SMI-S-compliant products.
SMI-S was created to standardize storage interfaces across products. Some big storage vendors have been reluctant to become fully SMI-S-compliant because these standards further the commoditization of storage hardware products. But noncompliant products further your dependency on proprietary management interfaces.

8. Keep up with competitive technologies.
Entertain as many competitive sales calls as possible and listen to what the salesperson says about the incumbent's products. At the minimum, the information will be handy at the negotiating table. Never let the incumbent believe they don't have to earn your business every time.

9. Always maintain at least a token of diversification.
It's critical to keep some form of storage diversification in the data center. It lets storage admins build more ubiquitous support processes and gain confidence in their ability to support multiple technologies; in addition, switching to a new storage vendor's product isn't such a big deal.

10. Avoid host-based storage agents.
Disqualify any disk array technology that requires host-based agents. The SCSI protocol is well-established and agents shouldn't be required. At least 10% of server CPU time is devoted to running agents. If you currently have host-based agents deployed, look for competitive solutions that don't require them.

--Brian Peterson, storage architect

This was first published in May 2007

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