As the ultimate consumers of storage networking products, corporate users have enormous power in the market. This power is fragmented, however, as individual purchasing decisions are dispersed over thousands of client customers and tens or hundreds of vendors.
Although storage networking vendors have a strong and common voice through the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), attempts to create end user associations for storage consumers are either still in process or have simply failed due to lack of consistent interest, organization, or financing.
Like all customer advocacy initiatives, end user associations can be either noble efforts to give customers influence over their vendors or hotbeds of opportunism as vendors attempt to use such associations for their own purposes. On the one hand, vendors really do need to have input from end users to help shape product direction and define priorities for new features. On the other hand, wherever two or more customers gather together, a vendor will inevitably sniff out the opportunity for a more immediate sale. Mixing vendors and end users under the banner of vendor-neutral consumer advocacy is not typically a formula for success.
Many storage networking vendors have customer advisory councils specifically created to help channel end-user input for product development. These vendor-sponsored councils have value for both the vendor and its customers, although typically the information gathered is considered competitive intellectual property by the vendor and is not shared across the storage networking community. There are usually some perks for customer participation: meetings in a resort-like setting, a golf outing, a vendor-logoed jacket, or in the worst case, a chintzy desk plaque.
Still, even small signs that a vendor is listening to and values the opinions of the customer are often welcomed, even if the venue is defined by the people who are trying to sell you more product. Vendor-sponsored advisory councils are not really meant to be forums for democratic expression. The last thing a vendor wants is for a leading customer to stand in a customer advisory council and complain bitterly about some unfortunate incident or the failure of the vendor to support a particular mission-critical feature. Advisory council agendas, therefore, tend to be tightly managed to avoid customer-to-customer infection.
Storage End User Associations Proliferate
Lately, we have seen several attempts to create end user organizations that are less tightly linked to individual vendors. The Storage Networking Industry Association, for example, has created end user councils that were originally conceived as autonomous, vendor-free bodies within the SNIA.
These end user entities would be financed by the SNIA, but encouraged to set their own agendas and establish their own vehicles for gathering end user input. SNIA board members would act as liaisons between the SNIA and the autonomous end user organizations. The intent is to create an open and collective channel for end user issues that can have immediate access to the vendor community as a whole.
This SNIA-sponsored attempt has had mixed results, primarily due to the fact that SNIA initiatives must rely primarily on volunteer effort. Consequently, the SNIA is also working with other storage end-user efforts, including the University of California at San Diego’s storagenetworking.org, to help create local end user groups focused on storage networking technologies and issues. Through the SNIA Education Committee, the SNIA is also providing SAN professional skills certification testing as well as in-depth tutorials on many aspects of storage networking technology.
Another recent end user effort was led by Quantum and other vendors with a focus on data protection and backup. The Enhanced Backup Solutions Initiative (EBSI) built an impressive mailing list of interested customers, but after encountering financial difficulties due to lack of vendor sponsorships, the EBSI eventually merged into the Data Management Forum (DMF) within the SNIA. Essentially, a vendor-led end user effort was forced by basic economics to take its initiative under the more vendor-neutral and better financed industry umbrella.
Since the EBSI’s existence was predicated on vendor, as opposed to end user, subscriptions, the SNIA (the gathering place of all storage networking-related vendors) turned out to be the more logical and realistic home for this backup initiative. The DMF, like the EBSI, however, must still walk the tightrope of vendor neutrality to ensure that end user participation is not tainted by influence peddling.
The ASNP Joins the Fray
More recently, the creation of yet another storage end user organization, the Association of Storage Networking Professionals (ASNP) was announced. This proposed end user channel is being organized by Daniel Delshad, who is also organizer of the Storage World Conference events. This initiative duplicates work already being done within the SNIA in terms of professional certifications and education, but offers an alternative vehicle for focusing end user input on storage networking issues.
Since Daniel Delshad is both chairman of the ASNP and organizer of the Storage World Conference, it's possible the ASNP could simply become a mechanism for recruiting more end user attendance for SWC. Greater end user participation equates to greater sponsorship fees by vendors for such events and consequently greater profits for conference organizers. This is not the sort of thing that is discussed in polite company, but should be considered before signing up for anything with User (or Professionals) in the title.
The emergence of these end-user focused efforts reflects the maturity of storage networking as a whole. There is now a fairly large population of end users who have day to day responsibility for shared storage and few channels for them to express their frustrations and requirements. This potential customer base, however, also provides fertile grounds for rampant opportunism, both by vendors of SAN technology and by people who make their livings on the periphery of the technology. Since end users are (or are rumored to have) gold in the eyes of vendors, anyone who is successful in organizing end users can become a magnet for vendor sponsorships and influence-buying.
The key to success for any end user organization is that the leadership remain truly in the hands of end users, as opposed to people who pay their mortgages promoting or selling storage networking technology. End users, however, are often too busy maintaining their own storage networks to volunteer the time and energy required to organize and sustain customer-focused organizations to represent their interests.
Local end-user groups for other technologies, for example, often owe their success to volunteers who contribute above and beyond their normal work hours. The benefits for end users are significant, however, in that these organizations can provide a wealth of information shared by peers and an opportunity to exercise collective strength vis-á-vis the already-organized vendor community.