I think what often works is when a customer specifically looks to establish a partnership with the supplier based on trust and a fair amount of instinct. That instinct will often lead to a supplier that values that kind of relationship and is culturally able to reciprocate. The result is the customer may not have received the lowest price ever on the solution. Typically if the customer paid more, it is not by much. The market is just too competitive now and those forces tend to keep everything within percentages of each other for similar solutions. Interestingly, these installations tend to have a much higher degree of success, and even when problems arise they are handled quickly and professionally.
Playing hardball with a vendor means that someone has to win and someone has to lose. In fact, the very term hardball when used in this context implies that someone loses badly. I suggest another game: tic-tac-toe. This game you play to a tie or everyone wins.
Certainly when looking at a new storage solution or even upgrading an old one, you should look at other suppliers and options. This does keep everyone honest. Decide up front that you are not going to demand the best price ever offered or even that you are going to buy from the cheapest vendor. Most if not every supplier that I deal with is not out to get anyone or to try to sneak something by someone. Suppliers really do want to solve your problems, and most of them really do believe that they can do it. Your job is to figure out which one really can help you solve the problem and who will be with you throughout.
What is best way to do this? Once you have your short list of solutions, you should consider reaching out to people who are really using that product. Don't ask for references. Anyone can get a few people to say something nice about them. Do everything you can to find them on your own. While not foolproof, your chances of getting the unfiltered reality becomes much higher at that point. E-mail us, we'll connect you.
Second is test the final two or three solutions in as near to production simulation as you possibly can. I have seen too many instances where a customer buys a solution without testing it completely. If you are going to buy a SAN because you want to boot from it, then make sure you test that capability on each candidate. You might be surprised by the differences; even if the vendor says it can do it, the capability may be significantly easier on one platform vs. another.
Finally, give it the BBQ test. No, don't throw it on hot coals to get the best price. Assess the local team, salesperson, and engineer -- they are your best eyes into an organization. Would you invite them over for a BBQ? Is that true of everyone in the organization you meet? Oddly, I find that when I like a supplier, I like 99.9% of the people within that organization, and when I struggle with a supplier I find it difficult to work with more than half of them.
At the end of the day, your goal is to get a solution that solves a business problem and delivers a return on investment over a period of time. That means you are going to end up working together for quite some time, so having someone that you can get along with and know will help you work through problems, which is priceless.
George Crump is founder of Storage Switzerland, an analyst firm focused on the virtualization and storage marketplaces. It provides strategic consulting and analysis to storage users, suppliers, and integrators. An industry veteran of more than 25 years, Crump has held engineering and sales positions at various IT industry manufacturers and integrators. Prior to Storage Switzerland, he was CTO at one of the nation's largest integrators.