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How to buy IT? (Part 1).

On twitter John Troyer asked “Are there books/classes on “How to purchase enterprise tech” or is it mostly analysts & tribal knowledge? Not a regular supply chain thing.”

There were some quick responses with the general consensus this was something learned by trial and fire, and a universal dread if a procurement department had any power in the decision.

Lets outline some of the problems.

1. IT buying requires you actually understand what your purchasing. A storage array and fibre channel network isn’t just “Tubes, RAW Terra-bytes, and dollar signs” (Despite one IT Director telling me this as he wrested with if he should buy a Netapp or an HDS giving absolutely zero concern for performance, support agreements, or usable capacity.)

2. IT purchasing isn’t always fully in IT’s control. Procurement will bid out that server, and end up with a H310 RAID controller that isn’t on the VSAN HCL, or will drop iLO meaning setup will take 10x as long and fail to deliver. Procurement departments are often judged on money saved, and now how badly they screw up time to deliver. Then again, IT staff often will declare ridiculous things (A $500K in Cisco switching to power 3 Cisco UCS blades) or make terrible decisions. But should procurement really be the back stop on keeping them from drunken buying toys they don’t need?

3. They vendors/channel system means the only people with information to properly consult on a products ability to deliver are the same people most of the time selling it to you. I saw a consulting firm for a do a 3 vendor shootout/need assessment for backup for a customer. 2 out of 3 vendors refused to return the analysts phone calls. Do we really want to do business with opaque vendors though even if they are the 50 Billion pound gorilla of the industry?

4. The amount of time that is often invested in finding the right solution can massively dwarf the amount of time required to actually implement. I once worked a storage deal that took 2 years. Servers were crashing, data was lost, and deck chairs where being shuffled, but the IT director was in paralyses of a decision. If a customer tells me they are about to buy storage, I warn them that they are inviting a barking carnival of vendors and nothing productive will be done until the product hits their loading dock. Get ready for bribe offers, teams of a dozen people to show up without being scheduled, and an amount of FUD that feels like an invading horde of barbarians. Once they smell blood in the water, every VAR within 500 miles will be at your door. In the end, is a quick and decision, or slow and methodical solution any better than throwing a dart at a Magic Quadrant? (Incidentally this is my theory of how some of the storage ones are scored).

Going over these 4 quickly.

1. This one is hard. If you don’t have SME’s in house don’t just put yourself at the mercy of your vendors. DO NOT TRUST YOUR VARs. They will lean on whatever has more margin this quarter. Realize that your SME’s internally may have agenda’s (If the whole internally team is Cisco certified, and that is their value then don’t take their recommendation for a Nexus 7K at face value). Pay someone to review this who is not going to be selling you the box. Pick several vendors to have review, come up with a scoring system of needs, risks, and have a 3rd party arbitrate the scoring.

2. Procurement is the wrong department to prevent waste. Realize that saving 10% and having 1/4 of solutions ship to you incomplete isn’t “winning”. Start with making sure the solution will work and THEN look at cost control. Often cost control is what weak non-technical decision makers fall back on (They are afraid the solution will not work, and want to limit the damage). Push hard to understand (or make someone make you understand) the decision at hand. Don’t try to cost control a project you don’t think is going to work. Delay the decision until you understand and pick decisively and correctly. If you don’t trust what your subordinates or consultants are recommending (because its often not working) don’t slash their budgets, replace them with people who can deliver on what they ask for.

3. Make sure you network and benchmark with others in your industry. While from time to time its best to break from the herd if technology is a differentiation point, but limit this to where there is a really compelling value. Don’t pick a storage vendor with an experimental protocol when your a 5 billion dollar company with only 10TB of capacity needs for Tier 1. its not worth the savings. Inversely recognize when your challenges are unique. If you have 50 field offices and your competitors have 5 so its time to consider VDI despite no one else doing it.

4. Ask difficult questions, know your criteria, and know why the last solution worked or didn’t work if this is a migration.The vendors will try to tie you up in quicksand and keep themselves in play as long as possible. Strike, hard and fast. If they can’t respond quickly to your needs then they don’t understand how to qualify them.
“I’m sorry, we are only accepting bids from vendors with 4 Hour onsite non-contractor support”
Know who’s not a fit before they call so you don’t waste time with non-starters.
“We need storage that can provide 10TB, 10000, IOPS with a 95% data skew of 8%, at an average block size of 16KB with a 75/25% read/write mix and a compressibility of less than 10%.
Know your requirements for purchase down to the most granular bit if you don’t want to play 20 quotes.
“Our GPFS implementation will give you 20K IOPS with 4 SATA drives and no flash”.
“Average Dedupe is 500% so you’ll only need to buy 2TB of usable”
“FCoE will be [Insert anything useful]”.

Magic Server/Storage/Network pixie dust isn’t real. Watch out for ridiculous absolute statements.

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