Communication key to making smart decisions about storage solutions

TechRepublic talked to an IT pro who says one of the most important things an IT director can do to ensure best practice in storage management is to do an inventory of current backup practices before making the decision to spend capital funds on the newest technologies.

By Angela Weisser and Jeff Davis

In a 2002 interview, we introduced you to Peter Pecere, an enterprise storage management expert who told us, among other things, that he believes his IT job is "recession-proof." When we tracked him down for a follow-up conversation, he was working on a consulting gig in Minnesota and trapped in his hotel room due to snow. As usual he had plenty to say about the state of corporate storage management.

Then and now

TECHREPUBLIC: When we last spoke with you in 2002, you were a TSM Administrator/Consultant who specialized in disaster recovery techniques. Does 2005 find you working the same magic?

PECERE: Yes, but I actually walked away from the industry in 2003 because I missed human contact and felt like I had lost sight of what was important in life. I spent a year composing music, reading, doing volunteer work—some major soul searching, you know? I want to make a difference in people's lives. So I gained some perspective and came back after my present assignment recruited me. But I wouldn’t consider what I do magic. However, using a similar terminology, I do feel that the technical world is somewhat of an illusion.

TECHREPUBLIC: How do you mean?

PECERE: Well, there is an unfortunate attitude in this industry that some of these computer guys take on. They pretend to be “holier than thou." They act almost as if they believe the company owes them something—that’s the illusion. The truth is the data management guys are there to support the business, and more specifically, the end user, not the other way around.

TECHREPUBLIC:  You sound a little jaded.

PECERE: Not at all! I love computers. It’s the culture of computers I don’t much care for (the whole lack of human contact thing). I am not your stereotypical computer nerd. I’m the first to admit there is more to life than just sitting behind a computer screen. I suppose in an effort to make that connection, my approach to this industry is like this: First, you listen to what the company wants. Hear their heartaches and complaints; what they need and what they’re not getting. It’s as obvious as any other business relationship: Listen to what the customer wants!

TECHREPUBLIC: It’s kind of like a doctor/patient relationship. Even in your last interview it seemed as though your job had the underpinnings of a doctor’s job.

PECERE: It is very much like that. Tell me where it hurts. Let me see if I can help you. Some IT managers have a tendency to look at every data storage problem as the same. But it’s just not so. Every company is unique to its data storage management team, just like every patient is unique to their doctor. A doctor wouldn’t give the same treatment to every patient displaying different symptoms. Likewise in our world.

The human touch

TECHREPUBLIC: It seems a hiatus for your personal needs has also simplified your view on what you do professionally.

PECERE: Perhaps, but I suppose it’s common sense too. Sympathy and listening go a long way in this industry. I hope I’m not dumbing down the interview, but the people in this industry who have the “holier than thou” attitude won’t last long. On the other hand, care and concern will take you far in this business for a long time. People can’t get that from books. When you’re dealing with an hysterical assistant who has accidentally deleted an important file and is afraid they’re on the brink of getting fired, that human aspect of care and concern goes a long way. That’s the human difference—we have the ability to listen and respond.

TECHREPUBLIC: So would it be fair to say this human aspect is part of the “best practices” for data storage management?

PECERE: Absolutely! But I think a mutual dialogue, one that is open and free, is very important to any project, department, or business. Arrogance seems to be a particular problem in the IT world though. There needs to me more interpersonal skills training for technical people.

TECHREPUBLIC: Okay, so down to some nitty-gritty. Can you think of one the bigger mistakes you’ve seen companies make, in terms of them suffering financially because they didn’t follow best practice?

PECERE: Well, the CIO [Chief Information Officer] of a giant healthcare corporation purchased new servers that were never previously tested nor certified to comply with any other software already installed in this company. Our only instructions from him were, “Make it work.” And you know what? We couldn’t. A $1 million dollar piece of equipment is now sitting in the basement under a layer of dust. It was a real albatross for the company. A simple lack of communication to the SMM [Storage Management Manager] prior to any decision making, in addition to lack of research cost the company big bucks.

TECHREPUBLIC: Sounds like the lack of communication aspect really gets your goat. Have any other beefs with the industry as a whole?

PECERE: Dealing with computer geeks who want the latest and greatest. That doesn’t necessarily mean it [the latest innovation] provides the best quality.

Backup work is never done

TECHREPUBLIC: You just mentioned a "giant healthcare corporation." What about the small- to medium-size companies who can't afford the latest and greatest? How do they budget their storage management needs?

PECERE: Well, budgeting can be restricted in large companies too. Mainly because it’s the financial institution paying for Company X’s data storage guys to be there. The budgeting contracts come from customers. You may have the best data storage solutions in town, but unless the CEO (or whomever) can convince the financial institution to back what you want to do, Company X isn’t going to get them. Sometimes you have to fight to get what you want.

Here’s another way to put it. If you have a twenty-year-old car with fluids leaking out of every nook, nuts and bolts falling of every cranny, smoke sputtering out the tailpipe, and rust covering 99 percent of the frame, you can take it to the best mechanic in the world, but you’ll have to accept the fact that your car is a goner. It’s the same with computers: "I’d love to take your money but you have to face facts that your server is finished." Still, people protest, “But I took care of it!” You just have to tell them, “You got your twenty years out of it, get over it!” That mechanic has to suck it up and show the customer if they don’t create a long-term solution, they’ll have a much bigger problem on their hands.

TECHREPUBLIC: What are some solutions for companies (such as the healthcare giant) who face storage problems?

PECERE: For big companies, you don’t just set up their data storage and go home. The system is always in the process of backups. It’s not like a math problem that has one answer and then it’s done. Solutions for data storage are always changing and have to occur every minute. Every third weekend of the month, for example, one company shuts all computers down and performs maintenance. This has to be done so that it does not interfere with Monday morning business. Storage management always keeps you in motion.

TECHREPUBLIC: Like keeping the wheels greased or more like putting out fires?

PECERE: It’s both. Sometimes, backups don’t happen, and I have to find out why. Data is changed so fast, and some of these companies require minute-to-minute backups. If a company I’m working for encounters this problem, I’d better find out why the data didn’t get backed up within the hour. It’s absolutely essential.

TECHREPUBLIC: You mentioned in your last interview “for some clients, the policy is 'we retain everything forever.’” Is this still the case for a lot of companies?

PECERE: Depends on the business. But it’s usually determined by a legal aspect of the business. In healthcare for example, retaining everything forever is mandatory. Actually, there can be several different retention policies within the same company. For example, retention of pharmacy records is different than the retention of patient records.

TECHREPUBLIC: Is there a rule of thumb for how often companies should back up their data?

PECERE: Depends again. In most cases, it’s a legality issue. But a company’s data changes everyday so they should back up their data everyday. For average personal computer users, it’s whatever they’re comfortable with. But for companies, practices are dictated by the kind of business they're dealing with.

TECHREPUBLIC: Pretend I’m a new IT Director tasked with budgeting my company’s storage management needs. What advice would you give me?

PECERE: Quite simply, don’t get sold into something that is the latest and greatest. New doesn’t always mean the best quality or fit for your company. Additionally, when one gets a new IT Director, the first thing they should do is meet with their new team and assess the landscape of their storage system. They need to assess if backups are done nightly, as well as what the statistics are for successful backups, archive jobs, and restores to the customers. In addition, they need to find out if they are up-to-date with the necessary information for the software as outlined by the contract. (They need to see the contract and meet with the contracts administrator/director.) Only when these requirements are met can they understand what their needs will be and how to budget.

TECHREPUBLIC: Do you enjoy your job as much as you did three years ago?

PECERE: Well, I'm not getting the instant gratification I used to in the healthcare industry, where I knew that everything I did affected patient records, and subsequently, patient care. I am presently on a large-scale project, so the rewards are not as fast as I like them to be. But that’s more of a personal thing than anything. But yes, I enjoy what I do. I like solving problems.

TECHREPUBLIC: Any last words of wisdom?

PECERE: I really hope the people that read this will take the human aspect into consideration. Communication, in my opinion, is the key to success in any industry, especially in IT.