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What You Need to Know About Outsourcing Database Administration

Author: Keenan Phelan | 5 min read | September 24, 2013

IT professionals must typically balance one or more complex relationships with service providers to ensure their enterprise runs efficiently and smoothly. It’s rare that the enterprise does not leverage outside providers. Database administration is now increasingly seen as a skill to be considered apart from application support and infrastructure.

As someone who has run IT organizations inside the enterprise, and from the provider side, I’d say this conclusion is long overdue. That said, however, the process for outsourcing DBA services is much the same as with other areas of IT, with many of the same characteristics and pitfalls.

Outsourced relationships are not self-managing. The first step for both organizations entails explicitly agreeing upon the expectations of a potential engagement. While some organizations choose to frame the scope in a request for proposal, this is certainly not required. What is critical for an enterprise is to determine what their goals are for the outsourcing arrangement.

This sounds simplistic, but many times enterprises use the bidding process to become educated on “what is out there” and sometimes lose focus on the original intent and core need. The key is that before the final selection process begins, that enterprise determines their goals for the contract, and therefore the type of provider they want to select.

For instance, an enterprise looking for 24×7 operational coverage could select a provider based on a couple of very impressive individuals, only to be disappointed by coverage gaps and because the focus of that organization is on large-scale deployments, not operations.

A properly organized and framed contract is required, but this is a topic unto itself. As my boss talks about in his “10 Myths of Outsourcing” presentation, the contract, while important, is one of the most overanalyzed, underutilized aspects in a typical outsourcing relationship. Proper expectations and a good governance strategy cannot be stressed enough, however, and this is as much about relationships as paper.

To achieve quality engagement governance and maximum value from the provider, many organizations choose an experienced database administrator in-house to manage the engagement. Having such an employee with skills in both technical and business processes can assist greatly in getting the best from a selected provider.

Call them the Technical Service Manager (many different titles are used). Their role in managing a provider is in setting clear goals and limitations, helping navigate internal people and process challenges, and, most importantly, providing a strong a steady hand for ongoing governance.

This role is rarely full-time, and typically is only a few hours per week, but it’s a force multiplier in getting maximum value for the enterprise. Top-tier Managed Services firms not only do not resist this type of strong client-side representation, but welcome it. As an old advertising slogan goes, “An educated consumer is our best customer.”

From an enterprise point of view, such an individual will not be overwhelmed by “techno-speak” from the provider and can hold the provider accountable at a level general IT management never could. From a provider point of view, they deal with someone who understands the details of what value they provide, and can avoid large perception problems, while advocating on behalf of the provider.

There is not really much that makes outsourcing database administration any different from entering into contracts for other types of IT services. Yes, there may be new technologies — cloud-based services, tools that bridge legacy assets with contemporary applications, emerging languages — but the basic tenants for outsourcing remain unchanged.

As James McCullough, a manager of IT outsourcing relationships for E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. Inc., stated in a presentation during Gartner’s Outsourcing Summit 2003, the key to effectively managing outsourcing relationships involves creating oversight mechanisms, standardizing all aspects of the project, developing metrics for measuring performance, and communicating constantly. As a result of outsourcing, he said his firm both cut IT costs by more than half and also increased user satisfaction.

Forrester analysts found:

Successful management of outsourcing models like managed services, cloud-based services, near- and offshoring, or outcome-based consulting requires high maturity in key areas, like definition and implementation of the outsourcing relationship, contract statements, service management processes, and of services and their corresponding service levels. Sourcing and vendor management (SVM) professionals have to ensure that they understand their own outsourcing maturity so that they can align themselves and align with the appropriate providers for their current needs and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their own outsourcing operations.

Service providers have their own definition of what constitutes a successful relationship with a client. Most critically, they must provide value to the client. This is frequently quantified through a combination of reduced operating costs and either maintaining or increasing the quality of the task at hand.

After a wave of massive multi-tower outsourcing contracts in the last 15 years, many lessons have been learned, including that there’s no free lunch. Shifting to firms that can provide specialized and intimate service can provide targeted impactful value, at very reasonable cost.

DBA services are a perfect example. DBA’s are typically the smallest group in every IT organization, whether it’s a $25 billion international corporation or a local $150 million manufacturer. This type of outsourcing both improves quality of life for employees, and enhances value delivery to the business, tapping into a slice of a much larger DBA “shop.”

A successful outsourcing relationship isn’t created in a couple of meetings, and it takes ongoing communication and work. A small but focused layer of governance, with a knowledgeable and empowered employee working with a service provider, is many times the missing link between satisfying high-value delivery and mutual frustration.

Source: “Database Management: The Advantages of Outsourcing,” The Technology Lounge, 06/14/12.

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