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Give me an R-O-I

Jon waxes eloquent about June grads, IT oracles and the never-ending quest of the bean counters for ROI.

Jon William Toigo
Jon Toigo is an independent consultant and prolific IT writer who has authored several books, including the popular Holy Grail of Data Storage Management and Disaster Recovery Planning, 2nd edition.

Jon is a frequent SearchStorage contributor who also writes a monthly column, Toigo's Take on Storage. Check out our index of other Toigo's Take columns.

It's that time of year again. Caps and gowns. Pomp and Circumstance. One by one, fresh-faced kids float up to the stage, grasp the Dean's sweaty palm in their right hand and the rolled-up sheepskin in their left, then turn to the crowd and make some gesture of victory and accomplishment.

For most, college graduation signifies the end of the party years and the commencement of responsible adulthood. From here, the grads will move into the job market where most will find employment (typically outside their formal field of training) and put in about 40 years in corporate cubicles. Along the way, the majority will marry (twice) and reproduce (2.5 children). Eventually they will retire, collecting a pension (maybe) and social security (maybe not), relocate to Florida or Arizona, enter senior citizen condos, and finally expire. All in all, a full life.

For IT professionals, however, the outlook is very different. The party life of the college years never seems to end. They rarely achieve a level of fiscal responsibility or accountability associated with, say, the banking, or business management, or healthcare professions. Heck, in many college-level computer science curriculums, students are not required to take a single class in economics or business, reflecting the "special nature" of their chosen work: guardians of the corporate information oracle.

IT pros: Guardians of the sacred oracle?

Throughout history, guardians of the oracle have always been accorded special status. In ancient times, they were provided with food, gas, and lodging for doing nothing but crunching data and making prognostications about the future. Roman oracles had it the best: Bacchanalian festivals, wine, women, and their own temples just for looking at a few animal entrails and saying things like, "Beware the Ides of March." It doesn't get much cushier than that -- except maybe for the life of a CNN Financial Network anchor or a technology industry analyst.

Yes, today's young IT professionals proceed from a long and pedigreed succession of layabouts and party animals. That's why most don't get this ROI thing at all.

Return on investment is a bean-counter concept. Bean counters are the antithesis of the IT profession. They look for a measurable, quantifiable, dollars-and-cents benefit from every expenditure of company resources. That includes expenditures on "corporate oracle" stuff like computers, networks and applications. What's up with that?

While IT guys see the world in terms of ever-expanding networks, ever-increasing storage capacity, and ever-increasing cycles, bean counters are quintessential kammeralists with a zero-sum-game mentality. "A dollar spent here could have been better spent there based on an internal rate of return for the investment modified by the cost of money," say the corporate kammeralists. "No wonder they wear constricting suits and ties instead of tie-die t-shirts and jeans," the IT guys respond.

IT and Accounting in the race toward ROI

The only point of grudging agreement between the two groups is that business needs IT the way that a superpower needs its military complex. Technology is like an arms race: it delivers only indirect business value, but you need to have good IT to compete with your adversaries in the market, who also have an arsenal of IT weapons. A missile gap, whether real or perceived, can cost you in the market.

Still, as in the case of military arms, unbridled spending on IT can bankrupt an organization. When budgets are tight and sales are down, the bean counters are charged with finding logical places to cut expenses. R-O-I becomes more than a cheerleader's ditty. It is the language for communicating technology's business value to bean counters.

Divining ROI is hard work, of course. You need to know how much things currently cost so you can contrast this information with how much things will cost after the proposed technology has been deployed. In storage, this is especially tough to do.

For one thing, there are no good tools (except SPEC.ORG's SpecNFS) for evaluating the storage I/O performance of two storage platforms on a comparative basis. You can be sure that the vendors aren't going to provide tools or data that enable apples-to-apples comparisons.

In the server world, where the Transaction Processing Council (TPC) has tried to introduce standardized testing, the TPC benchmarks are a joke. There are at least eight Silicon Valley engineering firms you can hire to tweak and tune platforms to yield TPC results that could never be achieved in the real world.

Besides performance, you also need to understand current costs to do an ROI analysis. Some consultants recommend that you perform a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) analysis to derive this info. However, as someone smart once said, TCO is a hammer that makes everything look like a nail. The biggest TCO expense is always personnel, and you need personnel to manage storage.

Using TCO results as guidance, you will quickly realize that you can buy all the storage technology you want as long as it is from a single vendor. That way, only one set of management tools is required to manage the entire plant and only a couple of monks are needed to operate the management console. But do you really want to join yourself at the hip to EMC or IBM or Sun?

Pursuing the often-elusive goal of ROI

The way to realize ROI objectives is to build them into the storage infrastructure from the outset. Select a heterogeneous management approach or strategy or framework. Then, buy storage platforms only if they work within this framework. Make management a key criterion in storage platform evaluation and acquisition.

You already have storage technology deployed, of course, but that is no reason not to develop a management strategy today that you can evolve toward with each new storage platform you acquire. In Fortune 500 companies, storage platforms aren't retained for longer than four years, anyway. Whatever your hardware retention lifecycle, as you change out your storage gear, replace it with more manageable components.

With a little common sense and planning, this ROI thing doesn't have to be such a hassle. IT propeller heads may even find that bean counters aren't such a bunch of stiffs after all. I even know a few who wear tie-dye shirts in the off hours and are pretty fun at parties.

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