What to look for in a third-party maintenance vendor

We've been discussing the option of outsourcing the maintenance of your storage systems rather than going to a vendor for this service. When vendors figure their maintenance pricing, it typically falls within a range of 15% to 25% per year of a product's purchase price, a hefty sum indeed (and a very high-margin business for the vendors). Third parties can often provide competitive pricing for equivalent services because they are willing to accept lower margins for their services business.

Obviously, a third-party supplier must have proven competency in supporting the products on your floor. The supplier also should be able to address what I find to be the three chief complaints of IT managers who must juggle maintenance contracts across multiple storage vendors each year: figuring out who owns a problem, the differing qualities of service received from different vendors, and managing multiple contracts with the storage vendors.

Determining which vendor owns a problem adds a significant amount to IT downtime, resulting in missed service levels. Often this incurs cost penalties that are a consequence of the added time offline. The problems often escalate from "it's a hardware problem/ it's a software problem" to "it's a server problem/ it's an array problem." In a shop with 10 vendors the potential for this sort of thing can be enormous. Make eliminating all this finger-pointing a primary selection factor. A third-party provider must take on all the responsibilities of dealing with the vendors, and your service-level agreement (SLA) should be with him. The problems then become the provider's, and not yours.

When it comes to service levels, make sure you have a single SLA for the entire site, and not a series of SLAs with differing language that merely reflect the wording in the original vendors' maintenance contracts. After all, your purpose is to keep your business systems running, so make sure the deal covers the entire operational system. What you want is guaranteed on-site servicing within a specified number of hours from the original call, no matter what the issue may prove to be.

Finally, for managers of enterprise-sized installations the biggest time drain of all is often the repetitive need to renegotiate and manage maintenance deals with all the providers. If you bought products during each of the last 12 months, that usually means that annual maintenance will come up for renewal during each of the following 12 months. Never mind when the products were purchased, what you want is a single contract covering all your storage assets. Think of the time savings of having one document to examine each year. With a single maintenance contract covering all your storage, you may find that you have lots more time to devote to running your departments, and that you will be spending much less time negotiating with your purchasing or accounting guy.

Many local companies are able to provide such services. Internationally, IBM and StorageTek do this as well.

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