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Process frameworks and storage

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Storage professionals are hearing a lot lately about the need for more process and discipline in their operations. A common response is to hire a consultant and generate documentation to create better storage-related processes that fix capacity misallocations, improper storage configurations, lax change control and poor troubleshooting practices. But these efforts rarely address the root causes of process breakdowns.

Business-unit executives are increasingly favoring another approach and pressuring their IT departments to implement International Standards Organization (ISO)-compliant procedures and policies. These process frameworks are supposed to be applied across all departments within IT, so they're moving to the front burner for storage managers. Storage professionals need to know the trends in storage process improvement, the key frameworks and how to justify their implementation, and how to improve their chances of success during rollout.

Process improvement is a broad topic with a rich history. A series of process-oriented management trends (including reengineering, Total Quality Management, Theory of Constraints and Six Sigma) have typically addressed departments other than IT, such as sales or manufacturing. Process frameworks, however, are focused directly on IT departments.

The first step is to choose a framework. Most American firms turn to the U.K.-developed IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL). ITIL offers a superstructure of best practices, governing

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processes and documents in the form of "books." But such frameworks don't include all the necessary "piece parts" to implement standard processes--certainly not storage-related operational procedures--in a data center. Out-of-the-box implementations of ITIL simply don't exist.

Users need to take a framework and see its expression in a standard, of which there are several. Some, like BS15000 certification and Control Objectives for Information and related Technology (COBIT), encompass all the IT disciplines and try to capture the ITIL spectrum; others are more specific to a technology stack, such as the Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF) or the SEI Capability Maturity Model for software development. There are even storage-specific implementations, such as the Storage Management Lifecycle (SML), a proprietary approach offered by GlassHouse Technologies Inc., Framingham, MA.

Service management
Two ITIL books, Service Support and Service Delivery, from the Infrastructure Library Series published by Stationery Office, contain the processes of most interest to storage managers. Service Support describes an effective help-desk function and covers five processes that provide IT service stability and flexibility. Service Delivery encompasses five additional processes that help to deliver quality, cost-effective IT services. The distinction between the two may seem subtle, but the former focuses on internal IT activities while the latter focuses on how technology is provisioned to the user. These two books are grouped under the ITIL concept of Service Management. The spotlight on SLAs (a component of Service Management) has resulted in the creation of IT Service Management (ITSM), which has its own governing body (The IT Service Management Forum), certifications, coursework, media outlets, conferences and so on.

Lisa Huston is assistant vice president, network operations at Raymond James Financial Inc., a St. Petersburg, FL-based financial services company with 2,100 locations worldwide. "For our organization, the key challenges begin with changing the behavior of our storage administrators, as well as our customers, in regards to following new processes," she says. Formal processes are becoming much more important, she notes. "Prior to Sarbanes-Oxley, a phone call or an e-mail requesting action be taken would often suffice. Now, a more formal request process, complete with documentation, has become a requirement."

Process, procedure and policy
"We have good procedures, isn't that enough?" That's a frequent reaction of IT managers upon hearing about process frameworks. In the current environment of service-oriented infrastructure delivery, the answer is "No." Many storage departments don't understand the differences between process, procedure and policy. Accordingly, when they try to document their internal disciplines, they end up confusing the terms. The result is a jumble of documents that don't fit together well, don't establish common operating methods or offer the opportunity for continuous improvement.
  • Process: High-level documents that include language explaining the importance of the process to overall operations, role-based workflows that track interdependencies and decision points, exception conditions, metrics and key performance indicator requirements, best practices references, and appendices with templates and tools. An example might be the process for incident management. Processes tell why to do something.
  • Procedure: A specific guideline that provides a step-by-step set of instructions on how to accomplish a task. A procedure should be a "step" identified in a process workflow that's complex enough to merit its own documentation. Often, procedures include screenshots so administrators can visually understand the behavior of a system, scripts, daemons, detailed operational guidance and settings--anything necessary to a systems implementation step. An example might be LUN resizing for enterprise storage arrays. Procedures tell how to do something.
  • Policy: Statements, rules of thumb and specifications that set forth measurable guidelines on what to do and what not to do. A policy is invoked in either a process or a procedure. It helps storage consumers and those managing the infrastructure to understand the parameters of operation. Some policy examples include overprovisioning rates for production database instances, standard LUN sizes and user soft quotas for file-system home directories. Policies tell what to do.
Justifying process initiatives
The 10 ITIL Service Management processes, such as change management and configuration management, are generic and applicable to every IT department. ITIL advocates typically refer to Proctor & Gamble, which implemented an ITIL-based initiative that has purportedly saved the firm $500 million over four years. There's gold in the hills of operational process improvement; the trick is finding it.

Process improvement is realized in tangible and intangible benefits. CheckFree Corp.'s Electronic Commerce Division, an electronic billing and payment service, hasn't "quantified the exact cost savings associated with [storage process] formalization, as the benefits, particularly around provisioning, are fairly intuitive," says John Michelone, director of storage systems. But even when benefits are measurable (such as reducing cycle times or improving provisioning speed), they're often attributed to a technology implementation or claimed by other corporate initiatives. Any documented savings (that accrue only at the end of the project) have to be balanced against the internal resource and external consultancy costs necessary to conduct a successful implementation (which are incurred at the beginning of the project).

Some benefits of a successful ITIL implementation can be directly measured, such as a reduction in SLA penalties. Others involve cost avoidance, such as reducing outages due to human error and limiting the impact of loss of service on revenue. The bulk of tangible savings, however, come from one source: labor. This is because process improvement brings higher productivity to operational tasks, which may allow for reductions in support staff.

Organizations skittish about labor savings may prefer to focus on the intangible benefits, which are even greater, but not directly attributable to the bottom line. These include:

  • Improved availability, reliability and security of mission-critical apps, yielding increased customer satisfaction.
  • With IT better aligned with business, the risk of not meeting business requirements is reduced.
  • Services provided in accordance with documented and auditable procedures.
  • Better communication among IT staff and users through a common language.
  • Information can now justify IT services and establish criteria for monitoring SLAs.

Overall, expected savings from ITIL-like process improvement projects may be difficult to document. Even so, these initiatives are proliferating as storage managers realize they need more standardization. "This [process improvement] is something that must be done," notes Huston at Raymond James. "We can't afford not to have formal procedures."

This was first published in October 2005

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