Many storage managers view requests for proposals (RFPs) as a magic wand that can be waved over a procurement to ensure that it's fair and will result in the best technology solution at the lowest possible cost. Yet a recent survey of IT managers and executives by Equation Research, Pleasantville, NY, revealed that only 39% of organizations used RFPs; of the total surveyed, 48% shopped storage to multiple vendors without a formal RFP process and a surprisingly high number (28%) acknowledged that most storage technology was purchased via sole source negotiation.
And those organizations that use an RFP for major storage acquisitions often stumble because they lack a solid RFP process. Compounding the problem, internal staff typically lacks the hands-on experience to perform due diligence for an RFP. So organizations end up buying storage technology based on a rationale not much different than what would have existed without the RFP.
Too often the well-intentioned goal of using an RFP is undermined by cagey vendors, overworked staffs and internal partisan politics. One way to get a better grip on the RFP process is to break it down into four chronological phases. Following these phases will put you, the storage buyer, at an advantage in acquiring new storage technology.
Once the word leaks out that a storage acquisition will be accomplished through an RFP, the various vendors will request meetings, each seeking inside information and extending offers of help. What organizations need to demonstrate to vendors, though, is a stem-to-stern RFP process that determines requirements and publishes them to all concerned parties, inside and outside the organization.
This phase involves serious data collection, inventory and documentation of current operations. Sometimes office politics intrude, preventing adequate information collection. Longstanding conflicts between data center staff and lines of business managers can erupt when discussing service levels, performance, system uptime, availability and access to information. Without this critical information, however, RFPs often become no more than a "tech spec sheet," which leads to a least common denominator solution that fails to address the business problem.
Gary Brown, senior storage consultant at Dimension Data in Charlotte, N.C., notes that RFPs are best when they aim to fix operational problems. "The challenge," Brown says, "is that no one wants to air dirty laundry by admitting to these problems, and so the requirements don't reflect the real need. Without clarity, vendors can not propose effective solutions. RFPs also need to address the internal process or people issues contributing to the pain."
At a minimum, organizations should follow these steps during the first phase of the formal RFP process:
Project lead. Appoint an internal staffer to be responsible for collecting data, interfacing with other departments, working with third parties and driving the process to completion.
RFI before RFP? Because RFPs require a good bit of knowledge and insight, some opt for a request for information (RFI) first. RFIs provide an informal forum for vendors to give their slant on the state of their technology and how it can affect your business. RFIs can help shape the boundaries of the potential solution.
The status quo. You should document all flaws and positive attributes in the current storage environment, quantify the exact financial status of the installed systems (depreciation, leasing, maintenance, etc.) and state future growth plans in all affected applications. You should also assess the current level of storage expertise in-house and state corporate direction with regard to host environments, database, backup providers and application rollouts.
Requirements. Meet with all internal stakeholders to draft a gap analysis that compares current service, functionality or support capabilities with line of business needs. Further, they should determine how the contemplated storage acquisition affects or enables any existing SLAs. If the buying organization has a platinum/gold/silver service model, there are likely specific attributes the solution must meet -- uptime, functionality, etc. These all need to be identified and integrated into the emerging requirements document.
Industry status. Attend the next meeting of the local Association of Storage Networking Professionals (ASNP) chapter or a similar user group to get the latest vendor scuttlebutt and study recent findings from the major storage analyst firms. This is also an opportunity to update yourself on the latest developments with the key industry organizations such as the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Lastly, reach out to trusted contacts in other companies to get their views on crucial storage issues.
Business case. Because major storage buys need to be based on more than a technology evaluation, you should create a business case for the forthcoming purchase. The business case should help upper management understand why additional storage gear is needed, as well as solidify their support.
Read about the next three phases of the RFP process -- stating the business case, creating a process for dealing with vendors during the RFP and making the ultimate decision -- in Storage Magazine.
Mike Drapeau is president of The Drapeau Group, an Atlanta-based firm that delivers on the promise of vendor-neutral data storage consulting.