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IT's vendor evaluation criteria change -- again

IT departments want to shrink their list of suppliers -- but should it be longer? Cloud, mobility and big data have IT rethinking vendor selection.

Rely on a single IT vendor, or manage an increasingly diverse but best-selection computing environment? IT managers would like to standardize and simplify, but technology's rapid evolution throws a wrench into the works.

Mobility, cloud and big data bring swift change to the data center -- and to vendor evaluation criteria. "To best exploit computer technology today, most corporations work with a number of vendors," noted Christian Perry, senior data center analyst at Technology Business Research Inc. (TBR).

Survival of the fittest tool

Businesses benefit from a best-of-breed tool selection approach. Suppliers that offer a broad array of data center equipment tend to lead a few markets and straggle in others. Rather than be saddled with a homogeneous suite of equipment that minimally meets their requirements, enterprises take advantage of vendors' strengths where possible.

This vendor selection method also saves money. Relying on a single vendor renders some IT departments complacent. The supplier knows that the customer is going to purchase its equipment, regardless of cost. Competition is fierce and pricing for data center components is volatile. If a customer is sure to opt for its preferred vendor's products, it misses out on aggressive discounts and ends up overpaying for the product.

While meeting business needs, data center infrastructure diversity increases complexity, hinders troubleshooting and support, and drives up costs. While the tools to manage heterogeneous data centers are improving, supporting multiple vendors' products remains a significant challenge for IT managers.

Choosing one throat to choke

Ideally, companies would like to work with as few suppliers as possible.

Christian Perry, Technology Business Research

Hype about the single-vendor approach picked up in the past few years with the emergence of converged infrastructures, a set of server, networking and storage functions purposely combined in a single chassis.

"Ideally, companies would like to work with as few suppliers as possible," noted TBR's Perry.

The phrase single-vendor solution can be misleading. In some cases, vendor refers to the supplier that assembles and services the solution, and doesn't necessarily mean that what's inside the box came from one vendor's workshop. To fill product-line voids, suppliers ink reselling agreements and incorporate other vendors' systems into their package of products. For instance, Cisco offers a number of third-party storage components in its converged data center products.

Deployment is simpler with integrated systems. Because the vendor ties networking equipment, servers and storage together, the IT team is relieved from having to connect numerous complicated elements. In addition, the suppliers configure components prior to installation, pretest system interoperability and deliver centralized management tools. Theoretically, all of the elements play nicely together, so the customer simply drops them into the data center. With fewer moving parts, enterprises consume system upgrades and new technology faster.

Troubleshooting also should improve with integrated infrastructure. Every data center vendor engages in a feature function battle, making each element quite complex in a heterogeneous data center with diverse tools. Consequently, device management will be tedious and time-consuming. With a converged infrastructure system, the vendor consolidates various management functions, so in theory, technicians troubleshoot multiple elements from a single pane of glass.

IT's time is freed up during the vendor evaluation process. Rather than go through long, often laborious, request for proposals process, IT departments call their primary vendor and order additional equipment on an as-needed basis. Instead of product evaluations, IT professionals deploy new components or enhance existing systems. As a result, more time is spent fine-tuning what the company has and less on deciding what it can and should deploy.

Employee productivity improvements extend to the back end. Buying multiple components can take months, involve various departments and require a lot of executive signatures. Companies pay back-office personnel to complete all the related administrative tasks. The fewer vendors they deal with, the less paperwork generated.

Now, the negatives

A couple of factors work against the single-vendor approach.

IT is losing control over compute-related purchases. By 2017, chief marketing officers will wield as much purchasing clout as chief information officers, Gartner Inc. expects. These emerging technology buyers will focus more on immediate results -- find the best system as soon as possible for the job at hand -- than on IT concerns, such as how to manage the new systems.

In addition, cloud computing encourages system diversity. Cloud adds an abstraction layer, so applications are not tied to existing hardware as firmly as they were in the past. Businesses are more able -- and increasingly willing -- to mix and match vendors and systems to meet business needs.

"Established companies, like IBM and Hewlett-Packard, have moved away from just pushing their own products to focusing on service," TBR's Perry said. Consequently, vendors are strengthening the connections among their gear, so IT managers can gather information more easily from a heterogeneous environment. Management tools are more robust and less operator-dependent than they were years ago.

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in data center issues. He has been covering technology for two decades, is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com.

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