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Seven ways to get better storage tech support

Tech support is often a pain point for SMBs. Marc Staimer discusses best practices for getting good tech support from storage vendors.

Whenever storage vendor technical support comes up in discussion with users, eyes roll, heads shake and frustration levels become tangible. Dissatisfaction appears to be universal, regardless of the brand.

The causes are many -- system complexity, lack of tech support training, outsourcing, vendor interdependencies, strategic alliances, insufficient testing, mergers and acquisitions. Standards are often too loose and are too proprietary, and diagnostic software often provides root cause analysis that is too limited.

So how do you improve your data storage vendor's tech support? Preparation, planning and perspiration, plus a bit of common sense. Unfortunately, as Voltaire stated: "Common sense isn't so common."

Don't expect your storage vendor's tech support to be very knowledgeable about your environment. The more information you can provide about your environment, the faster and more effective your storage vendor's tech support will be. Here's a common-sense checklist that will help you improve your storage vendor's tech support:

Understand your service contract.

If the service contract calls for next-day onsite support, it's hard to fault the vendor's tech support for not being there today. Make sure the service contract matches IT organizational commitments before there's a problem. If the contract doesn't match the organizational requirements, upgrade it or accept the risk.

Call the correct tech support organization.

We've all done this. You're not sure where the problem originates, so you call the tech support organization that you are most comfortable with -- although there's no indication the problem is theirs. Even if they help troubleshoot the problem, it strains the relationship and probably will cost you some money. Before calling tech support, you should troubleshoot the problem as best you can to isolate as much as possible to where it originates. There are storage management products available that can help isolate problems and provide root cause analysis.

Always provide a detailed description of the problem, when it started, the symptoms, and what has been done to isolate or fix what failed.

Another key is to provide as much detail as possible as to what happened immediately preceding the problem. It's useful to have system logs, data dumps, traps, etc. on hand. Don't send tech support this information in an email attachment. Put it on a URL or FTP site for tech support to look at and analyze.

Be sure you have a complete and current database with a visual diagram of the entire storage environment.

This includes all information (vendor, version, serial numbers, microcode levels, patches, etc.) about the server hardware, applications, host bus adapters (HBAs) and/or NICs, cables, connectors, switches, power, cooling, security, etc.). This isn't something that's done once and put away. It has to be continuously updated. You should also have on hand an up-to-date log (audit trail) of all changes, when they were made, who made them and if they were backed out.

Make sure the current storage vendor's compatibility matrix (hardware and software) doesn't exclude some piece of your storage environment.

This is guaranteed to rear its ugly head as finger-pointing and a delayed resolution to the problem. If there's a current item not on the vendor's compatibility matrix, attempt to isolate it from the problem. If that fixes the problem, persuade your current storage vendor to support it or move it to a supported environment. If the problem still persists after the offending item(s) have been removed, make sure this information is included in the data dump provided to the storage vendor's tech support.

No matter what happens, do whatever it takes to stay calm and professional.

The storage vendor's tech support staff are human beings. Human beings respond better to polite, firm professionalism than insults or screaming. Remember, they didn't cause your problem (OK, sometimes they actually make things worse or cause other problems). However, they really do want to fix the problem quickly and make you happy.

If the problem isn't being satisfied in a reasonable timeframe, escalate per the storage vendor's tech support escalation procedures.

One thing that may not be in those escalation procedures is getting the sales rep and sales manager involved. The sales rep and sales manager know that an unhappy customer is less likely to buy again. This can make them a fabulous ally in getting a problem resolved. Use this option judiciously. It loses effect the more it is used.

If your storage vendor's tech support leaves you permanently unhappy, no matter what you have done, cajoled, escalated, or threatened, switch vendors over time. Make sure the new vendor knows about the past vendor's tech support issues and any support promises are written into your contract. As you may have figured out, the responsibility falls squarely on you to make sure you get the tech support you require. That's the common sense part.

About this author: Marc Staimer is President and CDS of Dragon Slayer Consulting in Beaverton, OR. He's widely known as one of the leading storage market analysts in the network storage and storage management industries.

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