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What you need from a third-party storage service provider

Third-party data storage vendors can help SMBs with limited resources make strategic decisions and navigate data storage. This tip will help you make the important decisions that are involved in selecting third-party support.

While the big decisions in data storage often involve selecting and working with major brand-name vendors, for SMBs, equally important decisions are involved in selecting third-party support. These third-party vendors, which range in size from one-person consultancies to companies with a national reach, have one thing in common: They focus on helping SMBs with limited resources to make big strategic decisions and to navigate data storage from day to day.

Laura Doherty is the executive director at the suburban Boston-based charitable organization Mustard Seed, which has four employees at its headquarters, three remote workers in the US, and affiliates in several developing nations. And while their data storage needs are modest by comparison with many organizations, the data is still critical to operations, said Doherty.

So, at irregular intervals, the most crucial shared data is moved to a primary desktop system that acts as a server -- and there it stays. "I'm not a tech-savvy person," admitted Doherty, "and I already wear too many hats, so I have come to rely on a local IT consultant, Tinetrix Inc., to help me with tactical issues -- including storage -- and with figuring out where we should make investments."

Similarly, Susan Cameron, of the Cameron Consulting Group, finds regardless of how important IT may be, it tends to get short shrift. But her company, which employs about a dozen people trained to help children with special needs, depends on reliable storage. In fact, when a disk crash wiped out weeks worth of clinical records, "we had to cancel or reschedule a large number of hearings because we didn't have the information we needed," she explained.

SMBs turn to third-party storage providers to save money

As a result, a growing number of SMBs are turning to third parties to help tune applications, manage networks, handle storage resources and generally extend the capability of their own IT people.
Katherine Trost
AnalystNemertes Research Group Inc.

That's the pain -- and it's not unique, according to Katherine Trost, an analyst with Nemertes Research Group Inc.

Trost said SMBs are almost always under-resourced and are often coping with rapid growth, --even in tough times. Furthermore, they need to compete with larger companies that have more sophisticated IT capabilities while satisfying an expanding number of regulators.

SMBs also prize the flexibility and potential cost savings of working with a third-party service provider. "As a result, a growing number of SMBs are turning to third parties to help tune applications, manage networks, handle storage resources and generally extend the capability of their own IT people," Trost said.

Rich Leone is the director of IT at Alternatives Unlimited Inc., a nonprofit human services agency in Massachusetts. Alternatives has some 500 employees with about 200 PCs linked through a frame-relay based network and connected to several virtualized servers. The database server maintains the most critical files and is backed up to tape every night.

Leone currently uses Staples Network Services by Thrive Networks Inc. to get, "a level of expertise we could never afford to hire directly." Leone says prior to hiring Thrive, Alternatives was running Novell Netware and "depending on a local consulting company with one or two people to support us." However, when Leone looked to switch to a Windows-based server environment, Thrive came up with a really good proposal, says Leone. Since then, Thrive has provided most of the guidance needed to set up and maintain the network and ensure adequate data protection and backup.

Initially, Thrive provided a dedicated engineer who spent four hours a week on site. He reviewed practices at Alternatives, including conducting an audit for HIPAA compliance and other tasks involving security and storage backup. "They helped us to select and implement Symantec Corp.'s Backup Exec," Leone explained. And, he added, "Since we hired them, we really haven't looked at any vendor-specific support because we feel well covered."

The modest scales of SMB requirements may make it easy to skip a formal vetting process. Though Leone said doing so is a mistake, the first IT shop he used was hired purely on the basis of word of mouth. Thrive, by contrast, was hired after Alternatives developed a basic specification for what it needed, yet they still had to compete with three other companies to get the business.

Tory Skyers, an SMB administrator who operates The Sasha Company, also offered some observations as both a provider of specific services and someone who hires third-party providers. Skyers said he runs a mixture of home-grown storage and branded storage arrays -- a total of 22 virtual machines, with approximately 8 TB of total storage capacity. "I build specialized storage solutions for clients and as such I "eat my own dog food" by using the same infrastructure that I sell to my clients," he said.

Skyers said he relies heavily on vendors and third-parties. "Being a service consultant myself it is impossible to know everything about everything [so] I rely on my vendors for support and suggestion for the branded solutions I recommend and configure and on third parties to help when I've pushed the solutions I've created to their limits."

As an example, Skyers says he recently built a custom storage solution for a 3D animation house based on OpenSolaris. "I used paid third-party support to address some shortcomings of the systems that were outside of my expertise," said Skyers.

"In general, I've found the smaller third-party to be more versed in a broader array of topics. While the larger vendors have multiple specialists, I prefer to have access to one person with a conglomeration of knowledge that can reach out to specific subject matter experts when they've reached the end of their knowledge," added Skyers. "Third-party vendors in my opinion provide that, they for the most part cannot survive using the same model of one subject matter expert and one specialty," he said.

That same thought is echoed by Michael Kearns, president of TeamLogic IT Inc., another third-party service provider, who says it is crucial to understand who really has the expertise. "Especially in this environment, some companies will say they have the expertise in something just to get the business -- but they really don't. So you need to drill down, ask questions, and find out specifically who will do the work and what skills they have," he said. If it turns out the third-party provider plans to subcontract some work, that may not be a problem, but you, the customer, should know about that, he added.

Skyers said while cost is important when hiring a third-party service provider, he likes to see a body of established work and talk with previous clients to gauge which provider is best. In turn, he notes, "the clients who've chosen me as a vendor have relied on recommendations from past clients as well as current clients -- and my pricing model," to make their decision.

"Reach out to past and present clients of the vendors you choose and find out what the post-deployment support will be like before engaging contractually," he added.

In addition, notes Trost, when evaluating third-party companies, it is important to first discuss the process with your team and figure out some selection requirements.

"Then, once you issue your RFP, you should meet with vendors individually and go over terms and conditions, service-level agreements, security, and so on," she added.

About this author: Alan Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology, particularly data storage.

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