Building a better storage RFP

RFPs can help you source the best new storage tech, but only if you do them right. Here's how to get the greatest value from RFPs

How do most enterprises source new storage hardware and services? They whip up an RFP (request for proposal). Unfortunately, too many RFP authors fail to fully understand why they're writing one or what should or should not be included, dramatically reducing the quality of the responses.

One the other hand, a good RFP can yield unexpected benefits. Even if you already know what you want -- and you're following the RFP process only because you have to -- a well-crafted RFP will often yield ideas you hadn't thought of on your own.

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Know your RFP mindset

If you're charged with writing an RFP for storage, chances are you're in one of three different situations:

  1. You've already decided what you want to buy and maybe even from whom, but corporate policy requires you to get a certain number of proposals before you can pull the trigger.
  2. You haven't decided exactly what you want to buy, but you know what you need in terms of technical capabilities.
  3. You're really not sure what you need to solve the storage problems you face and want all the advice you can get.

If you already know exactly what you want, try to pretend that you don't know while you're writing the proposal. Even if you're just seeking a few more shelves of disk for an existing SAN, be as broad as you can when you define the RFP -- you may be surprised to find that those additional shelves may cost more than a completely new SAN platform that is both faster and more feature-rich (it's not particularly common, but I have seen this happen).

The sweet spot for the RFP process is reserved for those who know in granular terms what their technical requirements are, but have not determined what to buy. Even if you're not required to write an RFP and you're dealing with a trusted vendor, writing an RFP that details your requirements is a great way to minimize misunderstandings about the capabilities and services that need to be delivered. The up-front work will save you time in the long run.

Don't know what you need? Then chances are you lack the performance and capacity requirements necessary to write a useful RFP, not to mention the knowledge necessary to evaluate the responses. In this case, consider avoiding the RFP process altogether and issue an RFI (request for information). In so doing, you may avoid useless proposals from drive-by companies who aren't really that interested in whether what you buy actually suits your needs.

Instead, an RFI will garner responses either directly from hardware vendors (if you're large enough) or resellers who will consult with you to help you determine your needs. This is often a great way of getting free consulting services if you don't have the time or resources to do capacity and performance analysis in-house (though beware that you may get what you pay for -- obviously biased advice is sometimes less useful than no advice at all).

Set the stage with an overview of IT operations

The first thing a good RFP will do is paint the landscape. Many companies responding to your RFP may know nothing about your environment. Describing your overall IT operation from the 50,000-foot view, before you dive into the specifics of exactly what you're looking for, lets respondents calculate how their solution may fit in with the rest of your environment.

For example, say you operate a mainframe environment alongside a virtualization environment that primarily hosts Windows servers. Even if you're just looking for new storage resources for the virtualization environment, describe the mainframe environment also. You may find that some storage solutions you implement for one could work for both in the future. Even if you don't want to change anything now, having that flexibility may save you a pile of money down the road.

Don't omit the human factor from your overview. If your staff has never operated a SAN before, they'll need training to get up to speed with any new solution. Likewise, if your staff has only ever used a specific type of SAN (Fibre Channel vs. iSCSI, for example), vendors proposing a different technology will know to include the necessary training in their proposal. This gives you a better idea of what the total cost of implementation will be and makes the proposals easier to compare.

Dive in to the technical requirements

After you've set the stage, it's time to get into the nitty-gritty. This is probably the most difficult part of the RFP. You need to keep your respondents honest and avoid limiting the creativity of the proposals you get at the same time.

If you're seeking a primary storage solution, at a minimum you'll want to define how much usable capacity you need and what your performance requirements are in terms of IOPS (I/Os per second). Combined, those two metrics are your best way of weeding out the multitude of low-end solutions that may not perform well in your environment.

Also, make sure to detail what your data protection requirements are in terms of recovery point and recovery time objectives. If you're seeking a backup or disaster recovery solution at the same time, these will help ensure that the proposals match your needs. If you aren't, you'll need to go into detail about what your current protection scheme is to ensure that the proposals are compatible with it.

Stay solution-agnostic

As you build your requirements, stay as solution-agnostic as you can. Stick with IOPS and usable capacity instead of particular sizes and types of disks. Also, avoid using vendor-specific terminology. So, if you own an HP EVA and are seeking an upgrade or replacement for it, don't say you need the capacity and licensing to support X number of Snap Clones per volume. Say that you need X number of point-in-time volume copies.

This may seem like an incredibly minor difference, but it has an important effect. Putting required functionality in terms of bare requirements rather than a vendor-specific technology will weed out respondents who don't understand the technology they're selling. Many potential RFP respondents are simply trying to throw together a list of SKUs at a price-point that you'll buy. If you want high-quality responses, you need to get past your potential partners' reflex to throw some stock solution your way and force them to determine how to ensure their solutions will actually work for you.

Be specific with support requirements

Be very, very specific about the support you want for any equipment you're considering buying. Support and licensing costs are an enormous part of many storage solutions. Because of this, you need to know what it will cost to support your solution throughout its entire lifetime as you evaluate proposals. Even if your company policy is to purchase support on a yearly basis only (which is usually very expensive over the long run), be sure to require that vendors specify what out-year support will cost. Some vendors fix the per-year cost while others will get more and more expensive as the hardware ages -- a very important differentiator.

Sort out pricing

As you review the proposals responding to your RFP, very likely you'll observe wide swings in hardware pricing from one respondent to another -- even when multiple respondents propose the same vendor's solution.

Sometimes this is simply because one reseller is taking a larger profit margin than another, but often it is due to a process called deal registration that happens between the reseller and the hardware vendor. Deal registration is supposed to be a mechanism that rewards a reseller for the time and resources it invests in trying to sell you that vendor's hardware. When guaranteed a better cost basis, the reseller can better justify spending the time necessary to give you a quality proposal, since it knows other resellers who haven't invested in that work won't be able to compete on price with them. So this is normally a net benefit to you as the customer.

One the other hand, when many resellers scramble to register you as a customer at the same time, some unfortunate results may follow. The worst case is when a reseller with little technical knowledge of the product registers you and prevents other vendors who do understand the technology from matching the price. This may result in you receiving one very poorly constructed proposal with a low price, but glaring design deficiencies -- while other, carefully crafted proposals are saddled with much higher hardware and software pricing.

Depending upon the vendor in question, there may not be much you can do about this. But most hardware vendors will honor your request to vacate a registration from a reseller that hasn't actually done its homework and given you a good proposal -- freeing you to get both good pricing and a partner you trust.

This article, "Building a better storage RFP," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Matt Prigge's Information Overload blog and follow the latest developments in storage at InfoWorld.com.

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