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Managed SAN services aim to ease storage chores

Offloading SAN management to an MSP partner could free IT admins from an infrastructure component that sometimes gets short shrift among other data center priorities.

The care and feeding of storage systems continues to occupy IT departments, despite the steady expansion of cloud-based infrastructure.

SANs and on-premises arrays persist as part of the everyday reality for IT administrators. Organizations, however, might not think much about storage amid other technology priorities. In addition, maintaining dedicated storage specialists is a costly endeavor in tight economic times. This places an additional burden on IT professionals already quite busy managing compute and networking. However, managed service providers (MSPs) offering managed SAN services can relieve businesses of the burden of supporting storage arrays and SAN fabrics.

MSPs have been offering managed SAN for quite some time, but the cloud adoption trend had dampened demand. Yet, companies such as Involta, an MSP based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, have seen SAN management make a comeback. Ryan Shultz, director of sales engineering and an enterprise architect at the company, said managing SANs wasn't a huge opportunity just a few years ago. But the service provider has gone from having a couple of managed SAN customers to experiencing much wider interest in offloading SAN duties. "We have seen a massive uptick," he said.

A couple of factors have changed the market. In one trend, the cloud-first approach that became popular in recent years has given way to a "right fit" philosophy, Shultz noted. As a result, IT departments have adopted a hybrid strategy that places workloads on the best possible platform, whether on premises on in the cloud.

"You're always going to have customers who don't want to take everything to the cloud," Shultz said, citing cost, trust and technology concerns. As for the latter, the current architectural design of a given application or a cloud provider's service-level agreement metrics, among other considerations, could keep customers away from the cloud.

Ryan ShultzRyan Shultz

The second trend -- staffing considerations -- relates directly to the COVID-19 economy. "What we started seeing was more and more organizations had to cut some of the resources they had on staff," Shultz said.

Businesses let go of highly specialized storage admins to trim expenses, distributing storage responsibilities to systems or network professionals. The situation, however, put IT personnel in unfamiliar territory and consumed a good chunk of their time, Shultz noted. Lack of in-house storage expertise also contributed to outages.

"They tried to do more with less, asking IT professionals to do more things that are way outside their comfort zone," he added. "We picked up more SAN [and] storage array customers."

Phil O'KonskiPhil O'Konski

Consumption-based pricing

IT managers can expect to encounter new pricing approaches as part of the managed SAN experience. Phil O'Konski, practice director of managed services at Insight Enterprises' Cloud + Data Center Transformation division, said clients are purchasing storage through vendor programs that feature consumption-based models, as opposed to traditional capital leases. The pricing is akin to public cloud, but the equipment resides in customers' data centers. Insight offers managed services around the vendors' storage programs.

O'Konski said vendors' earlier efforts to reinvent their pricing were typically unsuccessful. But storage makers have gained a better understanding of financial models. In addition, consumption-based pricing resonates with cash-poor customers dealing with the pandemic.

"More clients are signing up for that kind of service," O'Konski said. "Two or three years ago, there was interest from clients, but the interest was more window shopping. Now, we are seeing a change in the marketplace."

Some clients use the consumption model to satisfy short-term needs. O'Konski cited the example of organizations that need to purchase storage for a legal hold, which compels a business to retain electronic documents related to pending litigation. "They don't want to buy something for 36 months," he said.

For other clients, the consumption-based model lets organizations more easily understand their month-to-month storage costs and attribute those costs to specific business units, O'Konski added.

Consumption-based variant: Private infrastructure as a service

Vendors offering consumption-based pricing offer customers a way to keep up with storage demands without making a sizeable, upfront capital outlay.

Insight can help customers tap a single-vendor program for a single-technology platform such as storage, O'Konski said. But many customers operate in multivendor environments. For such customers, Insight offers private infrastructure as a service. This approach spans multiple vendors, including those that lack a consumption-based pricing program for a particular offering.

Private infrastructure as a service transforms a vendor's "traditional bill of materials into a consumption model at a client's data center," he said.

What's under the hood?

IT managers looking to hire an MSP for managed storage might need to dig a bit to find out what companies actually offer. While some MSPs advertise managed SAN on their websites, others highlight different services. The latter group could still offer SAN management, albeit as part of a broader service category.

The 2112 Group's annual MSP report, compiled in partnership with SolarWinds, found 86% of MSPs are selling servers and storage devices alongside their services. Larry Walsh, CEO at the 2112 Group, a business strategy and research firm focused on the channel and based in Port Washington, N.Y., said he presumes MSPs manage storage devices under the umbrella of "complete/comprehensive managed services," noting 67% of MSPs use that label to describe their offerings.

"It's not surprising that they'd offer managed SANs," he said, suggesting companies like Involta and Insight aren't outliers.

But much more common are MSPs offering hosted storage and backup offerings in cloud environments, Walsh said. "This is mostly file systems in Azure and AWS, but also secondary and cold storage services," he said.

Spanning on-premises and cloud

In the hybrid world, MSPs offer organizations a range of managed storage offerings. For its on-premises customers, Involta covers a spectrum from managing a storage array to managing the entire fabric of a SAN infrastructure, Shultz said. Fibre Channel customers -- typically, larger enterprises -- generally hand off array management and keep the fabric under their own jurisdiction.

I don't see us getting away from managing storage arrays or managing SANs.
Ryan Shultzsales engineer and innovation architect, Involta

"They don't necessarily want an outside entity controlling the SAN fabric," Shultz noted.

Small and midsize organizations, which tend to gravitate to iSCSI SANs, usually hand off both device and network management, he added.

Shultz said Involta also keeps tabs on clients' cloud-based storage, citing the example of a virtual version of a Pure Storage array running in AWS. "They want us to manage that storage array, as well, in that public cloud," he said.

Involta provides the same types of services for cloud storage as it does for the on-premises variety, Shultz added. The demand for support transcends the delivery model. "There is always the need for hands-on, which, in the case of the cloud, is the tenant account that the individual customer still maintains," he noted.

Insight also offers a services portfolio that supports on-premises storage and extends to the cloud. O'Konski said customers with a specific architectural requirement might opt for on-premises storage and associated services. But some customers have more basic needs: These organizations lack an architectural imperative and don't require the more advanced features of a public cloud. In those cases, Insight offers its own multi-tenant IaaS offering, Insight Cloud. Customers using Insight's cloud can burst to the public cloud for services such as DR. Meanwhile, customers that need more dynamic scale and broader cloud capabilities, extending into DevOps, might prove better candidates for public clouds. Insight offers managed IaaS for the AWS and Azure public clouds to accommodate such customers, O'Konski said.

Insight's managed services offerings are consistent across both on-premises environments and the cloud. Insight's services include, but aren't limited to, remote monitoring; management; PaaS; disaster recovery as a service; patch management; and performance, capacity and cost optimization.

While the march to the cloud continues, Shultz suggested an all-cloud world is still quite a ways off. On-premises storage will persist for some time. And while that's the case, MSPs will offer an infrastructure management alternative for IT departments.

"I don't see us getting away from managing storage arrays or managing SANs," Shultz said.

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