Storage solution providers: Their pros and cons, and how to manage them

Storage solution providers can be vital in implementing and supporting storage systems through sickness and health. But be careful how you choose a potential storage reseller partner.

Storage solution providers, or value-added resellers (VARs) are essential partners for some IT organisations and most companies are likely to employ the services of a data storage reseller at one stage or another. The key thing for the customer is to select the right partner and to manage them effectively.

While most vendors are keen to maintain direct relationships with their biggest customers, many simply do not have the in-house resources to cater to the needs of small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

As a result, smaller accounts are likely to deal almost exclusively with resellers, while medium-sized firms may experience a "co-selling model." This is when vendors jointly sell into and manage their customer accounts with solution provider partners that provide local market expertise and are the first port of call in times of trouble.

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The pros of working with storage solution providers

One of the key advantages of working with a reseller is that they can supplement, complement or augment existing in-house storage skills.

"Anyone buying any kind of storage should seek the help that they need because it requires specialised skills, and resellers are a good method of getting that," said Pete Hooper, IT and production manager at Somerset cheese producer Wyke Farms.

Although Hooper looks after IT at the company, his main role is production management, which means that "there's not always time to look for the best solution," he noted. Resellers can help customers invest in the right products to fulfill their requirements while also providing support should any problems arise.

Wyke Farms employed local partner 101 Data Solutions to install a 12 TB Overland Snap Server SAN at its headquarters, swiftly followed by a second at its packaging facility for disaster recovery (DR) purposes and to store data generated from 20 high-definition CCTV cameras. It has also signed an annual support agreement with the reseller.

Another benefit associated with using a partner is that they form relationships with vendors so their customers do not have to. "Rather than try to form a relationship with a supplier, we went through a reseller we knew into a manufacturer that they knew, so it was a double hop," said Dave Thornley, service support manager in the student and learning services unit at Sheffield Hallam University. "Now we have a network that we can tap straight into rather than have to set everything up from scratch."

Another advantage of working with a reseller is that it may be possible to offload risk. Sheffield Hallam University, for example, took on partner Esteem Systems to replace its end-of-life EMC Clarion CX700 SAN with a Compellent Storage Center SAN.

But when sterling fell last year it was the solution provider rather than the university that took the exchange rate hit for equipment purchased in dollars. Esteem also shared the migration risk by providing the necessary expertise, "especially since we couldn't get people on training courses immediately," Thornley said.

The cons of working with storage resellers

There are also downsides to taking on a partner. "You're paying someone else to do something that maybe you could do in-house, although not as well, but it is potentially money that you don't need to spend," Thornley explained.

Another potential challenge is that occasionally things get lost in translation. "So you say you want this and they come back and give you that. It's not something that I've come across recently, but it does happen," Thornley said.

A further issue to bear in mind, however, said Tiffani Bova, a vice president at Gartner Research, is that many partners are geared toward a technical sell rather than solving business problems. They are also likely to be tied into one specific storage vendor, which may reduce choice.

"In the storage world specifically, you have partners that are very knowledgeable and capable when it comes to speccing and selling point products, undertaking fulfillment, integration, support and maintenance," she said.

My teams thought it strange that I took them out to spend time talking to resellers. But by implementation they had a level of trust because they'd met them.
Roger Bearpark
deputy director of ICTHillingdon Borough Council

But when it comes to issues such as implementing cloud storage, storage virtualisation or building disaster recovery capabilities, "there's a smaller set that are comfortable selling solutions to these business problems", Bova said.

How to find a storage reseller

One of the first things to do before deciding whether to employ the services of a reseller is to take an inventory of internal IT and storage expertise, qualifications and the future career aims of staff to establish skills gaps. Such gaps should then be mapped against the future business and technological direction of the organisation to understand where any impending holes may need to be filled.

"Customers tend to search out partners that match their internal IT capability. So if you've got a very robust internal IT organisation, you may want a partner that just sources and installs product," Bova said. "If your internal team is strong in implementation, you may want someone that can support and maintain; but if your IT organisation is nonexistent, you'll want a partner that can do everything."

Once skills requirements have been established, the next step is to find potential solution provider candidates. Options here include reviewing previously received marketing material, peer recommendations, Web searches, and issuing formal request for proposals or European Union (EU) Framework tenders in the case of public sector bodies.

How to select the right storage partner

When preparing to select potential VAR candidates, you need to give yourself plenty of time to plan. "In the ICT world it's one thing we don't do well," said Roger Bearpark, deputy director of ICT at Hillingdon Borough Council. "We have a good idea, rush at it, look at the situation in isolation and don't look at the big picture."

The problem with this approach, however, is that organisations can end up going with the partner that offers the cheapest solution rather than choosing one that truly fits their needs in terms of "softer" skills.

Hillingdon Borough, which hired reseller Fordway after putting a contract for a SAN out to tender, wanted to see skills transfer activity as part of the project -- although many potential partners were not keen on the idea in case they taught themselves out of a job. Another key requirement was that resellers were prepared to work with rival partners or suppliers to get the best outcome for the customer.

"If you ask them if they would be prepared to do that, it gives you a view into their soul and an indication of their attitude toward cooperation," Bearpark said. "You broadly get two responses: Either they say they can do everything, which indicates they have no understanding of our environment, or they accept the situation, which shows that they're open and will listen."

The council then scored the tender responses against pre-agreed upon criteria and chose the reseller with the highest score. But Bearpark also recommends involving IT or storage teams in the planning and selection process from the outset to obtain their different perspectives and views.

"My teams initially thought it was strange that I was happy to take them out to spend time talking to resellers because they didn't see the value," he said. "But by the time we got to implementation, they had a level of trust because they'd met them. They were comfortable and relaxed, and so we were in a good position to go from there."

How to manage your storage reseller

To get the best from your relationship with a VAR, you need to ensure that you have a good personal relationship with the individuals assigned to your account. "You need to be able to get on with the person you're talking to, so relationships are very important," said Wyke Farms' Hooper.

Hillingdon Borough's Bearpark agreed. "There has to be chemistry there so that you can build trust. It's about whether your staff is compatible," he said.

As a result, one criterion deliberately written into Hillingdon's tender document was continuity of personnel at all stages of the contract from planning through to implementation and support.

"It just wastes time having to have the same conversations again and again. But it doesn't have to be the same team of three or four all of the way through. It could be just one person that takes the lead, but that continuity helps to build the relationship and cement knowledge," Bearpark said.

To build an effective relationship there are three key words to bear in mind: communication, honesty and respect.

On the communications front, regular face-to-face meetings with account managers are useful to jointly review performance, share information about projects and strategies, and discuss recommendations and suggestions. Informal conversations between staff and partners can also be a useful way to spark or refine ideas.

Honesty in such communications is also important. "I'm always open and straight, so if I don't like what people are telling me, I let them know. If you're like that with people, they respect it because your relationship is based on honesty," said Wyke Farms' Hooper.

However, he warns against "getting lairy" with the reseller's support staff because it is counterproductive. "I used to be on an IT support desk myself and with people who were nice we'd always try that bit harder," he said. "You can put your point across without being nasty, and a bit of niceness goes a long way. It's about treating people with respect."

As for turning to the contract as a means of managing the solution provider relationship, this should be a situation of last resort.

"From a legal point of view the contract is important, but it's a formality," said Hillingdon Borough's Bearpark. "If you have to go back to it, my feeling is that communications are not as free and open as they should be, and you've probably gone past the point of no return."

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