The IT Superhero

“Why are you in Backups?”

A question I got asked recently got me thinking. The backstory of how I got into the profession is a fairly boring one which includes an offsite event, some alcohol and a proposition from an old Manager of mine. Not very exciting.

The real story here is: “why have I stuck around as a Business Continuity expert?”

It started off as a challenge to automate the monotonous backup operations. Included the panic of receiving restore requests when you know a backup failure occurred around the same dates. All the way up to the sense of responsibility in knowing that your mistakes may cost the Company dearly for years to come.

As my career progressed, it really became about one thing though. The Superman complex.

Superman

It wasn’t for 3 years that I experienced my first DR event. As the name implies, having an IT disaster occur was completely unplanned. We had no forewarning and the outcome of the next few days was a testament to the planning, processes and procedures that were put in place many years previously.

In our shared Data Center, we had a plethora of visitors each day. Hosted Customers tending to their systems, new installs, upgrades, break fixes. One of these visitors was a Vendor technician who came through the access controlled doors to replace some SAN hard drives for a customer. His chaperon, having better things to do than watch the fix, told the technician to knock on the door when he’s done so that he may be let out.

As these things happen, the technician finished and decided to try and leave the Data Center. The longer he struggled to get out, the more panicked he became. And without realizing what he was doing, he hit the switch next to the door which looked like a big red exit button…

It was in fact, a trigger for the fire suppression system…

The system went off with massive clouds of smoke, noise and thunder. The technician allegedly passed out and his chaperon came rushing back when he heard the commotion. Suffice to say, while these fire suppression systems are great at suppressing fire, they are a fairly bad thing to have happen to a fully functioning Data Center. The vibrations caused by the release had damaged hundreds of hard drives. Systems were blue screening, data drives were dead and SAN’s were blinking with more red lights than can be found in Amsterdam.

Within minutes of realizing what had happened, we started receiving our first restore requests. Dozens of client servers all vying for a spot in the restore train.

After a solid two days of queued restores, prioritization and many, many re-assuring phone calls to clients, we finally completed the last of the immediate recoveries.

We managed a 100% restore success rate. Minimized downtime for our clients and we received more praise in those two days than the following two years.

In my youth I imagined that I was Superman, and the Flash. Acting out how I would swoop in and save the damsel in distress.

In reality, I do not come from Krypton and I didn’t get bitten by a radio active spider.

But as a Business Continuity expert, I get to experience all the highs of saving the business damsel in distress!

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What’s next for Backup?

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Backup and Recovery systems have been stagnant for more than 10 years.

Vendors will be quick to point out that this statement is incorrect and they have been innovating consistently the whole time. So before I get an angry phone call, let me elaborate why I make this statement.

Backup technology in the last 10 years have been focused on incremental step changes. Innovation through evolution. We now have more speeds and feeds, better support, cleaner UI’s, etc.

In my mind though, I do not classify this as innovation. Data De-duplication from 10 years ago was innovation. Breaching the magnetic tape divide by introducing a technology that would drive wide scale adoption of disk based backups is what I am after. A Paradigm shift in the way we implement and perform backups.

Just like Data Domain of old, a new player on the block is bringing with it the technology of the future. The Massachusetts based startup Actifio, has brought the next wave of game changing software. They call it Copy Data Management.

Now, Actifio has been around for a fair few years so they have technically moved beyond just a startup. Why is it then that I only touch on CDM and Actifio now? Well, Charles Caleb Colton once wrote – “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”

And just like the early 2000’s, we have a new technology in the Backup and Recovery world that is driving the major players to imitation. Veritas has announced it’s closed beta of their Velocity product. EMC has been hiring for it’s own version built on their existing Data Domain platform. CDM is here to stay.

Why the hubbub? Well, let me put it this way. Since the inception of backups using magnetic tape in the 1960’s, when you needed a restore you always had to copy the data from your backups across a network to the restore location. Without exception, copying of data has overheads and is the reason why we even have the term RTO. Recovery Time Objective as a we know it would not exist if we could spin up images or copies of restore data instantly.

Imagine being able to spin up data from your backup disk dynamically and without any traditional restore process. Quite a few vendors have this technology available today in limited workloads. Expanding this capability to every workload will change the way we perform backups.

Copy Data Management is more than an evolution. It is the next Revolution since the birth of De-Duplication.

Value Propositions for dummies

After a fantastic financial year which saw us hitting our very ambitious targets in what we call “Data Management” I can’t help but reflect on how we got here.

As explained in a previous blog post, I am in the fortunate position in which I can cherry pick technologies and Vendors to work with based on opportunities and client requirements.

With this advantage comes a very real and distinct disadvantage. Every Vendor out there has a strategy that they execute either directly to customers or through a channel. The majority of our Vendors are channel driven and so, we are expected to take on their strategy and make it our own.

Now, unfortunately when you deal with a fairly successful Vendor the chances are that there will be more than one channel partner. And this means that there will be competition whenever a large customer reaches out to multiple partners during a procurement cycle. While partnering with said Vendor, you are expected to drive their channel strategy to completion.

Inevitably when the situation pops up, the decision from procurement is normally made to buy from the partner with the lowest cost since all the value propositions from different partners seem the same.

This natural process then serves to drive a behavior within the industry of cutting margins to the lowest percentages possible to get the business. And while this may be a good thing for the consumer, it is not sustainable in the long run. With complex IT systems that include support, implementation, pre-sales, post sales interactions, playing the margin game serves to only erode your business value within your organisation.

It is my opinion that IT integrators who play this game for too long may find themselves as the short term winners but ultimately the long term losers. By doing a deal at 1% margin most organisations do not cover overheads. The cost of sale these days run into multiple percentage points. Such aggressive margins also cannot cover for the occasional slip in scope or delivery that has to be catered for.

The question then is, how do we break free from this struggle?

Create a definitive value proposition that provides real world value. This value proposition can ultimately include the same Vendors that you would have included as the enabling technology but do not tie your value to the blue or red corner.

By positioning yourself with something unique in the market you force procurement to look at you as providing differentiated solutions instead of just another quote. When a CIO cannot get what you are selling from anyone else, this is when your sales team starts winning with good margins.

Sell value, not product!

A techies guide to displace a backup solution

Before I get to the subject of this blog post, let me preface my opinions with some context.

Current generation Backup systems are Dinosaurs of old. They were bought with multi-million dollar PO’s issued eons(10 years) ago. They keep data for years and keep you safe from legal and compliance repercussions. It’s your safety net when all else fails.

These systems are the first thing I think about when a presenter has a slide showing the “Cattle vs Pets” mentality. The days of naming your Tape Silo after the mighty gladiator Spartacus are over. The current industry is just too cut-throat to accept a depreciation cycle of 5 years anymore.

In my current role I am responsible for positioning Backup Software among other things to my customers. As a Global Service provider with partnerships reaching across the World it is inevitable that we have some strong alliances with Software and Hardware Vendors. Regionally these alliances face off with the up and coming technologies and as a Systems Integrator with this sort of reach I am in the fortunate position of cherry picking the correct Software and Hardware Vendors to work with in every opportunity.

With such a breadth of Customer and Architectural choice open to us we often times get engaged in proposals where we are looking to displace the incumbent technology that is deemed an ill fit or not meeting requirements any more.

More often than not this displacement is driven by the fact that another Partner is entrenched and supportive of the technology that is being targeted. As crass as it may sound, perhaps there exists no partnership with the technology vendor and ultimately, sale of your products are preferable to the current technology when you cannot directly benefit from it.

In the last 12 months I have been engaged at a few Customers where a decision was made to displace an incumbent Software or Hardware Vendor. I have taken away some insight from these engagements and I would like to share them with you.

Listed in order of importance, these are what you need:

  1. A non-biased IT support engineer or team of engineers.
  2. An incumbent Partner or Vendor who has neglected their Customer.
  3. An Angle at C level / A non-technical value proposition.
  4. Pricing to blow their socks off.
  5. Technical differentiation.

Red, Green or Blue IT

In my experience, if the operational IT guys on the ground that support the technology favors any Vendor, this will be the technology that will be used. If you propose anything else, it will be opposed vehemently and with prejudice. Without techie buy-in to your proposal you may as well save yourself the time and effort by chasing a different opportunity. Sway them however, and you are halfway there with the displacement.

Bullet-Proof Vendors or Partners

Vendors who impose massive penalties or make claims of their Customers are on a fast track to losing those Customers. Each interaction I have witnessed over the last few years where the Vendor or Partner put pressure on the client to true up when they have no budget has resulted in a more “cost effective” solution being implemented. Position yourself on the right side of this equation.

“Cloud” strategy

When meeting with C level executives you need a clear differentiation. Why should they go for your proposed product and buy from you? As-a-Service, Agility, Cloud, ROI, Something. You need to have a compelling angle that you can pitch to the CIO or CEO. Without convincing this level of executive, you have no Purchase Order. Remember the old adage of “No CIO has ever been fired for buying X or Y… “. The same principle applies. They love their Spartacus and it’s your job to convince them to slaughter it.

It’s all about the cents

Every displacement sale we have made in the last year has had some form of saving attached to it. If the solution cannot be quantified as a cost saving in some way shape or form you will not displace the existing solution. Be that operationally, with a clever licensing model or straight out discount levels, you need something.

Last and unfortunately least…

Technical differentiation is the absolute last thing on this list that makes a Customer change their backup solution. As a technologist this fact annoys me. It frustrates me that I cannot easily sell a customer on some new speed or feed and expect him to jump at the chance to own this amazing new Backup technology.

But while the new features and functionality won’t make the sale on it’s own, it is a much tougher sale if they are not there at all. Selling an inferior product based solely on the previous four points is a massive challenge that I would rather not tackle.

When dealing with your preferred Vendor program they will inevitably have their own list of do’s and dont’s when selling. I am by no means saying this list is all inclusive or the only way to win. I personally like having as many opinions to shape my own perception as I can.

What I am saying however, is that Backup solutions are cattle. They will be slaughtered, traded and commoditized without your input. No matter if you are Spartacus rising up against the tyranny of this practice or the local Backup and Recovery guru. If you are not up for the challenge, your Customers will be having these discussions with someone else.

It’s all about the NO

As someone within an IT Pre-Sales team there is very little that prepares you for your first Financial Year End. FY 2014 was my first dip in the Shark Tank. It was manic. Vendors camping out in your reception, hassling to close, demanding PO’s. Technology becomes irrelevant.

This month we had our H1 close out. And as it stands we are still 3 days out from the end of the Half with a ton of bookings that are still outstanding. We have solutions crafted on napkins. Pricing made up of fairy dust and a sprinkling of hope. Sales Cycle’s of weeks and days and it is not at an end yet. The office has the feeling you get from a MassMart end of Season Sale.

And yet, here we are. From a Backup and Recovery position sitting in the corner with the “NO” face on. Pressure from Clients to sell solutions that are not viable. Pressure from Sales to make the round peg fit into the square hole. Why are Backup guys always so difficult? Why do we always insist on having it our way?

Well, I present to you exhibit A: Code Spaces

Code Spaces is a very public example of why you cannot compromise in your business continuity and recovery needs. Too often we are asked to skim a solution or just trim a little off the top to make it financially viable. Even more often, we are asked to design a solution in the mould of online services like Dropbox.

And while I personally love Dropbox, these services do not remove risk. In fact, I would argue that they add a level of complexity and risk that is yet to be fully understood by internal IT. These risks and the articulation of the practical scenarios are the responsibility of all Architects to convey to their Customers, Sales and Ops staff.

So what are the alternatives? Have all IT departments say NO?

Well, IT have been saying NO. And we are to be blamed for the next level of complexity.

Shadow IT.

A fairly new trend has started to show it’s head in our industry. The ease of sign up, the agility of getting to services and integration via various API’s that are accessible to everyone has introduced a completely new risk to our industry.

Just recently we had an engagement with a Vendor on behalf of a Customer. This Vendor indicated that this particular customer is in fact already a Customer. They already have over 60 unique subscriptions to the service from different divisions. Millions of Customer records subscribing to an unsupported, non-documented and unprotected solution that IT was unaware of.

Imagine if this service gets compromised. Imagine if the service goes down and as a result business critical systems that rely on it experience downtime.

How do we fix Shadow IT?

Well, a lot of Vendors are now picking up on this new Hype word and they all have a solution for it. Agility in your IT systems. Software defined storage to reduce the time to implementation. Software defined networking to optimise the IP traffic. API integration to improve Orchestration and Automation. All in the name of predictively provisioning Services that can be had from Online Vendors.

My opinion on the matter is simple however and does not include any tech charge.

Stop saying NO.

As humans, it is in our Nature to defend. I am personally so overcome with pride at times when new solutions are brought to my attention that I shy away from even considering it. In an age where 3 year olds are more tech savvy than 70 year olds, we need to open ourselves up to the possibility that we are not always right. We need to open our eyes to the new technologies that are being developed every second. A world of opportunity exists just millimetres off the approved technology lists.

When IT starts dropping its arrogance in knowing it all and accepts that anyone has the capability in researching, and when IT starts accepting the assistance of business, IT can start gaining it’s control back. When we start working with business to achieve a common goal, Data Management and protections solutions can start being catered for and as a result, we can mitigate the risks.

Say NO and the cycle will simply continue.