Business continuity outsourcing is big business, as recently evidenced by the private buyout of business continuity provider SunGard. While more midrange companies manage mission critical IT infrastructure, they don't have the capital to invest in redundant systems. Therefore, many companies are looking at outsourcing the backup data center.
The practice of keeping mirrored IT infrastructure off site can mean different things to different organizations. What the service entails often depends on the level of involvement the customer wants to have with the backup facility. But is it really outsourcing? It depends on who is doing the management and the monitoring.
If IT departments provide replicated hardware, mirroring software and monitoring -- merely installing a second system in someone else's data center -- it's not really outsourcing. But the reality is that a remote site is often managed by that third party and that would be an outsourcing situation.
According to Tyler Roye, CEO of Commack, N.Y.-based backup outsourcing company, Invision.com Inc., it's unlikely that the physical space in his company's data center will come without some level of managed services.
"We'll certainly sell data center space, but in almost every instance there is at least some sort of level-one support 24/7," Roye said. "If they want to get into additional levels of managed services, then it becomes more of an outsourcing relationship. It's a slippery slope."
Analysts agree. "It is a form of outsourcing. It's not transferring your assets entirely over to a third party, but IT outsourcing is taking on more forms and hosting business continuity is certainly one of them," said Jeff Kaplan, managing director of Wellesley, Mass.-based ThinkStrategies.
Experts admit that this type of hosted offering had a rocky start, specifically third-party managed storage through the dot-com era. But for a number of reasons, business is booming now. "The reason it didn't work before is because it was premature," Kaplan said. "During the dot-com boom, corporations were being told to build out their own resources while untested third parties invested in their own infrastructures and collapsed because they didn't have enough customers."
According to Kaplan, the idea didn't fail. The timing wasn't right.
"So many more pieces of the puzzle are in place in 2005 than were a few years ago," Roye said. "Everything from application design to better networks, to service providers that now have years of experience providing managed high-availability solutions. It's finally prime time. Back then it was bleeding edge. Now it's a mainstream business offering."
Who's the boss?
So what kind of control do data center managers have over their infrastructure at the sister site? Is your data being housed on a server with someone else's? What is the customer's level of involvement? It depends.
"If you're just putting your own second machine somewhere else, you have full control over it and you're responsible for it," said Ron Peeters, senior director of business development for Irvine, Calif.-based Vision Solutions Inc., a business continuity software provider that partners with IBM Global Services. "If it's a hosted service that is being provided, then you do not have control over the hardware, nor do you want to."
According to Peeters, dealing with the investment, the upgrades, the power in the data center and the environment are just a headache.
"You can have control if you want it, but typically IT staff prefers not to have it," Peeters said. "In the unmanaged service they provide the hardware and the software, but it's all do-it-yourself. It's like Ikea."
Despite not having much influence over a managed offering's day-to-day operation, data center managers can play a proactive role in the outsourcing relationship, specifically when selecting a provider and maximizing the return on the service.
Outsourcing experts agree that data center managers should consider the following:
- Watch for a lack of service level agreements. If a company is not willing to sign an SLA, they're not a company to go with.
- Make sure the company you're working with is financially viable.
- Look at the people who are managing the operations; it's not just technology. Make sure their character and culture match what you're looking for.
- Don't relinquish these responsibilities and assume that things will fall into place.
- Retain in-house skills to make sure the companies are maintaining your interests.
- Retain visibility; make sure your provider knows you're paying attention.
- Get customer references.
- Ask important questions. How many years experience does your provider have? How many installs? How many skilled technicians? Who is going to monitor the environment? What security measures are in place?
"You don't want to go to a mom-and-pop shop that has a few extra servers in their data center," Peeters said. "It's got to work and you've got to trust the provider."
For IT departments that want to reach a goal, but don't want to make the up-front investments, outsourcing the backup data center is one way to avoid disaster. Instead of spending on hardware, software, maintenance, education and services, data center managers can pay a monthly fee to let someone else buy the equipment and manage it.
"It's a crucial aspect of an IT infrastructure, but it's not perceived to be a crucial aspect of the tasks an IT organization performs," Peeters said.
Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor