Requests for proposals (RFPs) are a necessary part of being a storage administrator, but they aren't going to make anybody's list of the "most fun part of the job." However, there are ways to make producing an RFP both less painful and more productive. This tip contains a list of questions you should ask yourself (and the answers thereto) before you start putting together an RFP for a new storage solution.
- Are you really ready to do an RFP?
Producing a successful RFP requires a fair amount of exact knowledge. First you have to understand both the problem you're facing ("we're running out of disk space again") and the meta-problem, or the problem behind the problem ("our storage resources are organized inappropriately for the job we're trying to do.") Second, you have to have a pretty good idea what hardware and software solutions are available and how the various approaches compare.
Sometimes you're better off taking a step back and putting out a Request For Information (RFI) instead. This is an informal opportunity for vendors to brief you on the available technologies and how they could affect your situation. Typically an RFI process is more far ranging and a lot more flexible than an RFP. If you're not confident you're absolutely on top of technology in the rapidly changing storage arena, an RFI is often a good place start.
- Know who's in charge -- and let the vendors know it
- RFP is a process more than a document, and someone should be delegated to manage it. This person serves as a contact point for the vendors and generally herds the RFP along. Vendors, as well as interested stakeholders inside your organization, should know who this person is.
- Put in the details -- the more the better
A good RFP is information heavy. But if you want vendors to give you detailed information, then you have to be willing to do the same at the front end of the process. The more details you are willing to share with your potential vendors, the better chance they can draft a proposal that will really meet your needs.
- Begin with the business case
You should begin the RFP by orienting potential vendors to your business and the problem you are looking to solve. More than anything else, this resembles writing a VERY BRIEF business-school case study. It should explain clearly who you are, what you're doing, the problem you're trying to solve, what the goals for the new system are and how all that fits into the business overall.
There's another reason for carefully formulating the problem you're trying to solve. Typically a major RFP works in two directions. It goes outward to the vendors to acquaint them with your needs and requirements, but it also goes inward to your upper management who need to understand what you want to do and why. The relationship of higher management levels with the RFP may be informal, but it can be a critical part of a successful procurement process.
- Be very careful what you ask for: You may get it
One of the worst, most frustrating, outcomes for the RFP process is when it produces a system that doesn't really meet the organization's needs. If you're lucky this will be obvious when you read the resulting proposals. If you're not lucky it will take a lot more time and cost a whole lot more money before you discover that this is not what you really wanted.
- Be clear on your evaluation criteria, but don't specify test methodology
You should clearly state your major evaluation criteria for the system and group them by level of importance. This should include not only the technical criteria for the product, but also the criteria, such as level of training, for the winning organization. But don't specify how you'll test for the performance criteria. Getting specific with the test criteria encourages gamesmanship on the part of the vendors.
- Seek feedback from vendors
About a week after the RFP goes out, contact the potential vendors and ask if they intend to submit a proposal. If most of them say they will not submit a proposal, you may want to re-draft the RFP to meet their reasoning. For example, if the RFP is too general, too slanted to one vendor's products or appears to be a fishing expedition, you're probably going to get a lot of refusals.
- Ask for references -- and check them
This is probably the single most important step when it comes to avoiding trouble. Storage systems are complex and expensive, and you don't want to be someone's guinea pig. Ideally each vendor should be able to provide names of customers for whom they have installed systems like the ones they are proposing. Take the time to talk to those people as part of the evaluation process.
Resources for writing an RFP
A column on writing good RFPs from management consultant Henry Dortmans is at www.angustel.ca/angdort/adli160.html.
The Yankee Group discusses how to use RFPs effectively in the procurement process at www.business.att.com/content/whitepaper/leveraging.pdf.
More hints on writing RFPs can be found at www.q-aconsulting.com/rfp.htm.
For a really comprehensive look at the entire RFP process, there are books dealing with the subject, notably: Request for Proposal: A Guide to Effective RFP Development by Bud Porter-Roth.
Rick Cook has been writing about mass storage since the days when the term meant an 80K floppy disk. The computers he learned on used ferrite cores and magnetic drums. For the last twenty years he has been a freelance writer specializing in storage and other computer issues.
This was first published in March 2003