Solution provider takeaway: Solution providers should focus on five key areas to address their customer's needs in a server virtualization project.
Showing value, above and beyond the norm, to a customer assures them that the channel partner they choose to work with for their systems integration will not only meet but also exceed their needs. This is more important than ever, especially in the competitive landscape brought about by today's tight economy. Server virtualization projects provide an excellent opportunity for you to demonstrate that added value.
The server virtualization lifecycle should at a minimum include delivery and execution of an assessment, architecting the environment, migration from the physical infrastructure to a virtual one, training and education on all aspects of the virtual environment, and ongoing management and monitoring of the health of the virtual environment.
Assessing the server virtualization project
Even if you're coming late to a server virtualization project, there's still an opportunity for your company, though you will need to make a more concerted effort to be included in the project. A unique way to ensure inclusion in an already active server virtualization project -- or one that hasn't yet started -- is to offer a virtualization assessment. Bring examples of past virtualization assessments to meetings with prospective customers; they can go a long way in demonstrating the expertise your organization has in delivering quality virtual environments. Providing these past assessment details can also generate many new ideas from the customer, giving you a unique opportunity to better understand their needs.
Customers that haven't yet leapt onto the virtualization bandwagon need to feel confident that they understand the issues that play into the decision they are about to make -- especially around which physical servers are good candidates for virtualization and which ones are not. A "virtualization candidate assessment" is an ideal way to demonstrate value-add; this level of account control can give you a leg up on the competition.
Most of these virtualization candidate assessments will require at least a day or so on-site with the customer. Depending on the virtualization candidate assessment tool selected, most assessments are basically the same; they all look for CPU, memory, I/O and network throughput metrics. Differences among the tools do appear, however, during the report delivery or the initial physical to virtual (P2V) conversions.
For sales and engineering, the assessment is an excellent opportunity to better understand the needs of the customer and get to know them. It also allows the customer to better understand the value that the partner can bring to the table. So this is the time to shine. Bring the most experienced and savvy engineers for this assessment; it's crucial for gaining the customer's confidence.
Typically, you'll need to run the assessment over one full business cycle to fully understand the customer's applications requirements (I/O, CPU, memory utilization, network throughput, etc.). Cutting the data-gathering phase to a shorter window might produce inaccurate results. For example, there may be an accounting application that runs heavy once a week; if the assessment is conducted over just a 24-hour period, you might end up making a huge misstep when deploying the virtual environment.
To determine the length of a reasonable business cycle, talk with the customer and then map the assessment around that cycle. Then, find out which physical servers will be profiled and work with the customer to help them discover which servers make the most sense to grab assessment data for. Begin the data collection process using tools like ones from Tek-Tools and Xcedex, as well as basic OS monitoring tools, all the while checking in with the customer to learn how the process is going and make sure the data collection process isn't affecting their production environment.
Upon completing the data-gathering phase, the next step is to correlate the collected data and prepare a report that summarizes the findings, to be presented at an assessment overview meeting. But don't be slow in producing this report. Quickly delivering an extremely accurate report demonstrates that the engineer and the sales team fully understand the customer's needs and can react in a speedy manner. A delay at this stage in the process will undoubtedly give the customer time to entertain other ideas from your competitors. At the assessment overview meeting, you should also provide the customer with the appropriate architectural diagrams, proposal information and pricing for the virtual environment to be deployed.
Presenting the assessment results are as important, if not more so, than the data-gathering phase. By the end of the meeting the customer needs to completely understand the scope of a server virtualization project: which servers are great virtual candidates, which are borderline and which should be taken out of scope and why.
Architecting the virtualization solution, another key step, should be performed post-assessment and delivered during the assessment meeting. The advantage of a reseller performing the above assessment work means that they have most if not all the data they need to generate the architecture plan. It should include information about:
- The virtualization platform to be used for deployment, whether VMware, Xen, Hyper-V or Virtual-Iron.
- Whether to virtualize servers and desktops or just servers.
- Server resources needed to deploy the virtual systems, including CPU, memory, network ports and I/O ports.
- Shared storage for the virtual server to ride on (SAN, NAS, etc.), including details on capacity, I/O requirements, replication and disaster recovery.
- Network components to add bandwidth to the environment, including usage of 1 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) or 10 GbE.
- Backup and recovery processes for the new virtual environment, including a recommendation on the best possible way to back up and recover the virtual environment.
- Any monitoring tools needed for the virtual environment.
Once the plan has been reviewed, revised if necessary and approved by the customer, the next step is to generate a server virtualization project plan. This should include deployment timelines, P2V conversion details, architectural diagrams, descriptions as to what will be deployed and the advantages of each and, of course, pricing.
If the budget for the server virtualization project wasn't determined up front (and it should have been), the pricing component will have to include multiple levels of designs, typically with options for good, better and best solutions. Each pricing option should include pro and con highlights. The goal is to make sure that the customer understands the trade-offs at each level. This protects you from out-of-control customer expectations and shows the customer that you have the ability to meet their needs at multiple levels.
Be flexible and allow the customer to walk before they run, since virtualization generally works its way into an organization at a lower-priority business area before higher-priority areas. Fortunately, most virtualization vendors offer lightweight deployments for organizations to get started. If a customer does decide to start out light, provide that lightweight service (using VMware ESXi, for example) and be there with them every step of the way. As industry metrics have shown, customers that start small in virtualization usually grow very rapidly.
Customer training should be an ongoing process throughout the assessment, architecture and deployment phases. Offering training before, during and after deployment will set you apart from the competition. It will also ensure that when there is a call for an environment or infrastructure change or additional services, the customer will call you instead of a competitor, securing an ongoing revenue stream and continued fostering of the relationship. The training, if possible, should be conducted at the customer's location with their equipment and all of their engineers. This helps ensure that server virtualization project stakeholders have a full understanding of the environment, and it will also probably bring you a few more champions in the account and limit the number of support calls down the line.
There is also a services opportunity in analyzing how a customer is handling the ongoing management of a virtualization project. You can help customers with capacity planning, virtual machine archiving and virtual machine sprawl.
For the successful completion of any server virtualization project, you need to remain close to the customer throughout the pre- and post-sales processes, all along bringing your best assets to the project: those that show initiative, understanding and a high level of support.
About the author
Tim Anderson is currently a storage consultant, as well as a contributing analyst for Storage Switzerland. He has a deep background in the storage and virtualization environments, with years of experience managing and architecting one of Chicago's largest data centers.