A leading commentator on the storage industry recently wrote that interoperability demonstrations such as those staged at Storage Networking World (SNW) conferences have little practical value for customers. After SAN management issues, interoperability is still the second leading concern for end users of shared storage technologies, and although showcase interoperability demonstrations express a high degree of cooperation between vendors, things are often quite different on a customer site when Product A has difficulty working with Product B.
As the poet T.S. Elliot wrote, between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. Between the ideal of harmonious and seamless interoperability and the reality of product compatibility conflicts, there are often long and dark shadows that unfortunately fall on vendors and customers alike. But are interoperability demonstrations really a hoax, perpetrated by unscrupulous vendors to deceive gullible end users, or are interoperability issues an inevitable consequence of a new technology halfway on its road to maturity?
The sad fact is there's almost always a bit of fraud on the part of a few vendors as well as sincere commitment by many others when it comes to showcase interoperability demonstrations. Generally, however, vendors with hidden or open competitive agendas do not fair well in interoperability demos and are forced to either adopt the culture of peer cooperation or withdraw from these events. Since interoperability demonstrations require a commitment of valuable assets and technical expertise, the vast majority of participants attempt to leverage the events to identify actual interoperability issues and to highlight their commitment to open systems.
SNIA's Interoperability Committee Spurs Evolution of Demos
Most vendors recognize that continued interoperability problems are retarding the widespread adoption of SANs, particularly by mid-tier enterprises. Several years ago, this recognition resulted in the creation of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) Interoperability Committee, which I previously co-chaired with Sheila Childs of Legato.
The Interoperability Committee has evolved over time and is now responsible for showcase interoperability demonstrations, interoperability events at the SNIA Technology Center in Colorado Springs, and the Interoperability Committee Test Compliance program that is providing standards-compliance test suites for new technologies such as iSCSI. The initial showcase interop demos were fairly small, with fewer than a dozen vendors participating. Today’s SNW interop demonstrations are multi-million dollar affairs, with typically 40 or 50 vendors in various application-specific configurations.
Although interoperability demonstrations cannot duplicate all the permutations of products that a real customer may wish to deploy, they do force cooperation between various vendors that otherwise might not ever connect their products. Since participation is open, even small vendors have the opportunity to participate with mainstream vendors. In the normal course of vendor-sponsored interoperability qualification, by contrast, a small vendor may never see the interior of a major vendor’s qualification lab.
Likewise, although Fibre Channel switch vendors do intensive testing of other vendors’ switches for competitive reasons, showcase interoperability events encourage them to stage multi-vendor configurations in the open. Whether a customer is a single-vendor shop or has inherited an eclectic mix of equipment through mergers or acquisitions, the interoperability being shown at a conference or trade show is at least a guideline for what products have actually worked together.
No Plug and Play Here
Still, storage area networking is not a plug and play technology. Although standardization improves the chances of compatibility, variations in vendor implementations will always pose potential problems for any customer who strays outside single sourcing. Major vendors who conduct their own interoperability testing and qualifications may produce workable, multi-vendor solutions, but this has never been sufficient for customers who want to leave their options open. Although vendors attempt to satisfy minimal interoperability requirements while maintaining proprietary market differentiation, customers push their vendors towards even greater interoperability and advanced features.
As storage networking continues to evolve, the contradiction between vendor and customer priorities is spinning off additional interoperability issues. Storage virtualization, for example, lacks standardization as well as any immediate promise that one virtualization product will work with another. So while improvements are being made at some levels of infrastructure (e.g. fabric switch compatibility), new layers of compatibility problems are being generated at the top.
Showcase interoperability demonstrations instead represent point-in-time snapshots of the state of the technology. A few years ago, for example, virtualization vendors and IP storage vendors participated in an Emerging Technology zone of the SNW Interop Lab. Now, those vendors are in the mainstream interoperability demos, connecting iSCSI hosts to Fibre Channel storage and virtualizing disk and tape.
Likewise, it took two years before the major fabric switch vendors could stage a true multi-vendor fabric, although subsets of vendors had shown interoperability at previous events. The basic statement of these events is not that customers no longer have to worry about interoperability, but that the vendor community is progressively addressing the issue. At each event, new multi-vendor permutations are on display, giving customers new options for solutions they may implement in their own environments.
The Real Value in Interoperability Demos
The real significance of the interoperability configurations that are staged at SNW and other venues is not that they demonstrate certified solutions that can be readily replicated by a customer, but that interoperability events expose vendors to myriad interoperability issues they need to address. It also exposes the technical and marketing staff of storage vendors to a greater industry community whose collective success is based on cooperation.
SNW demonstrations that began several years ago as frustrating exercises in cat herding are now complex, highly organized events pulled together by SNIA staff and member volunteers. Millions of dollars of equipment and hundreds of technical experts work for months in advance to define and stage solutions that approximate real world storage applications.
And since enrollment in a specific demo is open to any SNIA member, interoperability issues are constantly challenging the teams as new hardware and software products are added. Vendors who have participated in consecutive interoperability events have accumulated valuable experience with their own products as well as other vendors’ products that cannot be gained within the confines of an individual vendor’s lab.
This is the real value of such events for customers, since constant improvement in technical expertise and product interoperability will shorten the time it takes to integrate practical multi-vendor solutions on a customer site. The operative words here are shorten the time. It now takes less time, for example, for my Windows to reboot when a so-called plug-and-play device driver faults. That’s progress.