Can the performance, scalability and security of your data warehouse be enhanced by going outside?

Today's Internet-enabled data warehouse environments are multifaceted, multitiered and disseminated. They must support thousands of users with fast response times while maintaining around-the-clock availability. These technological challenges plus economic and competitive pressures have many companies looking to drive corporate performance by incorporating outsourcing solutions into their business strategies. The potential for increased efficiency, reduced cycle time and standardization of processes are just some of the reasons for exploring this alternative. Each outsourcing option offers varying amounts of business process management, software, infrastructure responsibility and risk.

This column examines some of the criteria that can be used to differentiate the various outsourcing options from a technological perspective in a remotely hosted environment. Various architecture and infrastructure criteria can be used in examining an outsourcing option to help evaluate the benefits and risks of a solution. This should result in the development of an outsourcing strategy that sets the stage for a business and technology plan for the future that promotes organizational performance.

Evaluation begins by examining the maturity of the services provided. This assessment should include a review of how best practices are integrated and used in services. The provider should furnish information on the methodologies and standards that are being used for development, quality assurance, change management and operational practices.

From a security perspective, the outsourcing provider should be able to furnish documentation from an application and network penetration test, preferably conducted by a third-party security assessment firm. These reports will show what security issues have been found with the provider's infrastructure and site as well as the resolution or mitigation applied. The provider should be conducting these types of security tests on a periodic basis to ensure continued integrity of client services and data. Assessment should include review of firewall rules, inbound/outbound ports, data migration methods, authentication methods and internal network segmentation, or IP filtering capabilities. The provider should be able to supply information as to how client data is separated and controlled to ensure security and integrity. The ability to provide security and audit logging information to clients should also be available. The assessment should also include evaluation of the provider's intrusion detection mechanisms (application and/or transaction level), incident response/escalation and client notification procedures. A walk-through of the provider's data center should be conducted as part of a physical security review and verification process.

From a business continuity perspective, the assessment should examine the provider's capability to handle service disruptions including the ability of the infrastructure to handle failover and redundancy in the case of a server or data center outage plus spikes in site usage. Failover testing should be conducted on a periodic basis as part of a disaster recovery plan. The plan should be examined as part of the assessment to evaluate contingencies of the provider.

Evaluation should also include assessment of the knowledge and experience of the business analyst and technology staff. This will provide comparison information that can be used to differentiate providers as to the depth and breadth of their resources used to support outsourcing services. Criteria should include the number of years of experience in a particular industry, business area and role. A determination should be made regarding role-specific certifications and training the provider's staff possesses. Is the training provided to the staff resources relevant and current? Participation and involvement in specific industry groups (e.g., standards, security, data warehousing) can also be factored into the assessment. Interview the provider's staff members to verify the information provided in the assessment. Evaluation of the intellectual capital of the provider should supply a means for determining their ability to successfully support services to your organization. It will also offer insight and credibility into their ability to respond to customer needs.

Several critical success factors need to be implemented with an outsourcing solution for data warehousing. Service level agreements and performance expectations need to be spelled out and understood between the parties. Establishment of effective management and monitoring of processes and infrastructure need to be put in place. The roles and responsibilities between the customer and the provider need to be clearly delineated.

Many companies have benefited from the incorporation of outsourcing into their business plans through active involvement and support in the attainment of this strategy. To be successful in evaluating an outsourcing option, companies need to evaluate their business performance needs against common selection criteria applied to each provider.

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