Doing your due diligence

Don't gamble with your new data center. Make sure your outsourcer has good answers to these five questions.

1. Can you offer new data center capabilities on platforms other than the ones you sell?

New data center pitches proffered by outsourcing providers that are also systems and software manufacturers presuppose an infrastructure built with their own material. But users also need to know how well their approach works with a varied environment, and whether the eventual plan involves a wholesale upgrade to a single-vendor platform, says Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice president and founding partner at Nemertes Research. The goal is adaptive computing with vendor diversity, and at the moment, "it's not easy to do that," he says.

2. Can we contract for continued innovation?

Gartner recently completed a study in which users were satisfied with the day-to-day operational capabilities of their providers but not with the degree of innovation they offered once engaged in the deal. By innovation, users meant automatically applying new types of technology solutions to their environments when these made sense.

"Users are seeing and hearing about virtualization and on-demand capabilities, but they don't see it showing up in their deals" once contracts get signed, says Bill Maurer, a Gartner research director. He recommends inserting a contract addendum to make sure the technology being applied to your environment doesn't get out-of-date with what the vendor is offering to newer clients. For instance, two years ago vendors began regularly writing password resets into help desk outsourcing deals, but they didn't retroactively apply them to older contracts, Maurer says. You need to write that kind of flexibility into the contract.

Flexible contracts are all-important, Antonopoulos agrees. "Sophisticated processes for implementing change should be highly visible in the contract," he says. It's a good indication if the outsourcer has methodical and well-instrumented tools for the change process. "It's one thing if you have to send a triplicate fax order for having changes made vs. an online application you can use," he says.

3. How stringent are your service-level agreements (SLA)?

A key component of the next-generation data center is transforming from "IT as a set of systems" to "IT as a service," as well as the ability to measure that service via meaningful and realistic SLAs, Antonopoulos says. Old-school SLAs, for instance, might promise a four-hour window for a system repair. Next-generation SLAs cater to the importance of the application. "You might contract for silver, gold and platinum application platforms, where you choose your service levels and pay accordingly," he says.

4. What are my payment options?

Payment options are a big indicator of whether a provider is new data center-ready. For instance, rather than charging by the CPU or per seat, Antonopoulos says, it should charge based on things such as transactions or traffic levels, not the use of infrastructure. The key is to pay for actual, not peak, usage. "If the metrics used for charging relate to infrastructure components, you have a problem," he says. Another indication is whether the provider charges on a CPU basis, which indicates dedicated servers, or a more granular, sub-CPU level.

5. Can you validate your work?

To ensure the outsourcer can handle your particular needs, ask for a minimum of three references and make sure they're engaged in a similar type of deal to yours, Maurer says. "If you're seeking, say, storage virtualization, you better be darn sure that, if the company says it can do it that, there are reference checks in place," he says. The reference should include representatives from both business and IT.

Brandel is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass. She can be reached at marybrandel@verizon.net.

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