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Showback the value of your data storage expertise

To demonstrate value, IT must provide an easy-to-understand cost model to its business leaders. This has fostered IT showback projects. Yet showback isn't easy to achieve.

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It seems everyone is trying to eliminate the storage admin. If the general virtual admin can manage storage or the cloud takes care of it, why not? Well, for one, it would greatly increase all kinds of risk. IT operations could always become more automated and infrastructure silos will naturally merge, sure, but advanced storage responsibilities like data protection and governance are complex, tricky, and often require close supervision and expertise.

It's not just storage that's in trouble, either. Public clouds provide a simple price structure that businesses can not only directly map to utilization, but also often unfairly compare to their internal IT allocation, or tax, for similar services.

So how can IT make clear the relative value of storage knowhow in this new world of automation, virtualization, convergence and cloud computing? To start, IT needs to step up and provide an understandable, usage-aligned cost model to its business leaders.

How can IT make clear the relative value of storage knowhow in this new world of automation, virtualization, convergence and cloud computing?

In fact, we are already seeing this happen with the growing popularity of IT showback projects as high-level corporate initiatives. Showback isn't as easy to accomplish as it may seem, however. There are essentially two forces at work, seemingly at odds with one another: showing "value" vs. presenting a "bargain":

  • IT wants to illustrate how its expertise adds value, which can be done by showing healthier, higher per-service prices supported with a broad catalog of detailed offerings and extras. Simple and cheap services may be seen as commodities that should be outsourced. Showing business leaders that what they are getting from IT offers value greater than what they are paying for the service makes IT seem a better, more competitive choice. Pricing that shows this value also tends to reduce nuisance, or unnecessary, IT requests.
  • At the same time, IT must compete with public cloud offerings. As such, it aims to show corporate the lowest, most competitive price structure based on an easily understood (i.e., simplified and higher level) catalog of internal IT services. If internal IT isn't perceived as simple and cost-effective, business leaders may continue to migrate to cloud providers. Making IT look like a bargain could, therefore, keep more IT budget in-house.
Once you migrate lots of data to one cloud, it is difficult, and potentially costly, to move it elsewhere.

Out of habit, I often speak of IT costing as chargeback. If we were talking about actual chargeback instead of showback, assuming IT is still considered a cost center, then a fair allocation of actual costs would be the overarching goal. Of course, it's impossible and too expensive to break down and allocate every IT cost exactly. The result is that, by far, most IT organizations produce an approximate showback allocation of estimated costs. Still, because business leaders want to compare internal IT costs to external cloud prices, the best showback reports may need to be indicated in reasonably cloud-comparable terms.

The cloud-comparable showback

IT must clearly articulate what it offers and guarantees for storage services versus what is available from a cloud provider. For example, public clouds often present subscription pricing options (with expected service levels) on capacity, resiliency, I/O access and bandwidth depending on type of storage, and an ability to allocate some resources for I/O acceleration. But there are few cloud guarantees around actual I/O latency. There's also no help aligning storage to guarantee application performance, and certainly little assistance in minimizing the total storage "cost" footprint.

The idea with a public cloud is that you can try it out, and if you don't like it, you're free to move on (or spend more). And when cloud compute instances inexplicably slow down, the common practice is to just kill them and spin them up again. When it comes to poor existing cloud storage performance, however, you're a bit stuck. Once you migrate lots of data to one cloud, it is difficult, and potentially costly, to move it elsewhere.

Also, no one in the cloud cares about what's in your data or its real corporate value. Internal IT, by contrast, provides key data governance and implements lifecycle policies concerning protection and retention. Reliable backup doesn't just happen. Disaster recovery isn't automatic. Even knowing where particular segments of data live has become a valuable IT task.

Storage admins need to make sure they don't become 'ghosts' in an increasingly cloudy IT environment.

IT also minimizes storage costs by understanding the relative value of data, eliminating unnecessary copies, moving aging data to less-expensive tiers and recovering unused allocations. This is as true on premises as it is when persisting data in the cloud. And we haven't touched on end-to-end encryption, access and security, hybrid integration, migration and data movement, global distribution and ultimately maximizing the value of data to the business. IT storage folks can also help tailor storage to guarantee peak performance, minimize capacity and lower licensing costs, and assist in aligning application requirements with the optimal resources.

Clearly, IT (and storage folks, in particular) has to somehow show the value of not only data persistence, but also what they do extra. And when I say extra, I don't mean optional. As listed above, much of what storage pros might need to do extra still requires doing when using external, public cloud storage services and, of course, private/colocation/hybrid variations.

Navigating the new hybrid IT world

Storage admins need to make sure they don't become "ghosts" in an increasingly cloudy IT environment. Their mandatory, overarching efforts to manage corporate data should be visible on both sides of any hosting cost comparisons.

On showback reports, this could mean calling out the on-premises infrastructure storage costs separate from data management costs -- which occur regardless of where data is persisted. Comparable IT data management costs should also be fairly overlaid onto any cloud cost reports.

Businesses must see and appreciate IT involvement even if they use infrastructure as a service, software as a service or any other public cloud service. Unfortunately, labor (e.g., you and me) is usually broadly allocated because detailed IT time tracking is a nightmare. I wish I had a silver bullet to recommend, but fair allocation of staffing costs is still going to be a hard slog. I can only recommend that serious IT financial managers attend some sessions on modern allocation techniques from organizations like the IT Financial Management Association.

In any case, both IT showback and any newfangled cross-cloud brokering platform should support accounting for some prorated storage and data management costs. By breaking out and making visible the real value-add that IT storage pros provide, everyone will be better off and better able to navigate and optimize what is inevitably going to be hybrid IT and, perhaps, even prevent unfair, or unnecessary, cloud adoption and migration decisions.

Next Steps

Private clouds need chargeback

Stay away from cloud washing traps

Adopting IT chargeback pros and cons

This was last published in January 2017

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What's your most effective approach to showback the value of your data storage expertise?
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Good question, I'm also interested in most effective approach. 
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