SAN Interoperability Reigns at Storage Event

If it's possible for conferences focusing on one all-important, all-encompassing technology sector to have a centralized theme, that theme would be interoperability for the Storage Networking World Fall 2002 event. The summit, running from Oct. 27-30 in Orlando, Fla., will showcase storage networking interoperability in the form of such emerging standards as CIM and Bluefin, or the Storage Management Initiative (SMI).

What are these schemas and why do we need them? Shepherded by the Storage Networking Industry Association, Bluefin is an open, vendor-neutral application programming interface (define) for monitoring and managing devices on a storage area network (define). It is object-oriented and links application clients with device management support. That object model is built with the Common Information Model (CIM) standard, and a language binding and protocol solution that employs CIM-XML (CIM operations over HTTP), and Service Location Protocol (SLP). Bluefin goes beyond specifying the object model and documents what needs to be done to achieve interoperability.

Why we need them is a complicated matter, but vital to the evolution of storage. There are many players in the data storage and recovery field who make everything from storage devices and software to fabric switches. Because most of these vendors employ their own proprietary technologies, the various hardware and applications don't mesh with one another. For example, if you buy a storage cabinet system from, say, EMC, you won't necessarily be able to run software from another company on it. This dilemma exists across the storage networking plain.

This adds up to a piercing migraine for some IT managers who might love the performance of the EMC cabinet, but may not find the company's software as useful as something from, say, IBM. Or perhaps the problem is a pricing quandary. Either way, the IT manager could be stuck: the hardware and software from disparate vendors likely won't work. This has led to outcry and demand from those whose very job depend of storage systems that work well and fit into the confines of the company budget. These folks demand flexible, heterogeneous (define) storage area networks.

It makes sense, then, that Bluefin was created by an array of leading storage leaders, including: BMC Software, Brocade Communications Systems, Computer Associates, Dell Computer Corporation, EMC, Emulex, Gadzoox, HP, Hitachi, IBM, JNI Corporation, Prisa Networks, QLogic, StorageTek, Sun Microsystems, and VERITAS Software. After all, there is a lot of money to be made. Aberdeen Group figures the market for storage management software will exceed $21 billion by 2005. More generally, Gartner Dataquest estimates some $41 billion will be spent on storage services worldwide by the same year.

But an interoperability standard such as Bluefin, whose development many in the industry liken to the SNMP (define) schema for networking, is still a year or more away from being used with the effectiveness and frequency that is desired by IT managers. There have been tests and experiments between companies, but no viable industry uses that any one company can deliver to its enterprise customers.

API exchanges: foreplay to Bluefin?
What the major systems vendors have done in the meantime to assure customers of heterogeneous systems, is exchange APIs -- the very method by which a programmer writing an application program can make requests of the operating system or another application. These exchanges have been plentiful and recent partnerships were agreed upon between often-bitter rivals HP and EMC, HP and Hitachi. IBM has exchange agreements with all three of those firms. Just last week, the firms shook hands on SANs for the public's benefit.

While the nature of the API exchanges may appear symbiotic, analysts will tell you upon closer inspection that objects in the mirror are not as close as they appear.

Enterprise Storage Group Senior Analyst Nancy Marrone said the exchange of APIs was necessary to keep customers happy, but warned not to be fooled by the nice-nice posturing of the firms.

"You can bet that although they may give up some of the pieces of code, they won't give up the important parts," Marrone said. "It wouldn't make sense for these competing vendors not to exchange APIs because they don't want to lock themselves out of the market while the others are doing it. But, there will be X factors. Look for these firms to deliver some value-adds in the future to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack."

Enterprise Management Associates Senior Analyst Mike Karp agreed.

"The sharing of APIs is tentative," Karp said. "The vendors are going about this very gingerly. They agreed to share some, but not give away key things. In the industry companies, are always willing to share general ideas, but when it comes to core technologies, it isn't the same. There are still core differentiators. That's the concept of enlightened self-interest -- they share APIs to benefit themselves in the long haul.

Where do we go from here sweet child o' mine?
Where indeed? Enterprise Storage Group's Marrone has some idea about what happens when CIM and Bluefin-based systems hit the market in a couple of years.

"CIM and Bluefin are going to neutralize the storage area networking market," Marrone predicted. "These standards will absolutely make it easier to manage multiple arrays and switches. CIM is like SNMP in that if you had an SNMP platform any router, whether it was Cisco, or someone else, would work on that platform with minimal configuration. CIM and Bluefin are very good for storage management."

Enterprise Management Associates' Karp had a similar take, but said it is a tricky proposition.

"With Bluefin, you have a set of specs specifically aimed at trying to present an open API," Karp said. "Bluefin defines all interfaces. It offers a common playing ground that all companies that subscribe to it can have access to. "It's a drum that a lot of companies still march to. Yet at the end of the day, the companies will have the same concern about giving up their crown jewels end of day; they won't give up that final set of knobs that provides differentiation."

Karp cautioned that it's not as easy as it sounds, saying "you really have to dive down almost to the molecular level."

Is Storage Networking World a pit stop on the path to interoperability?
Karp had this to say about the Orlando conference next week: "Bluefin will have its first large-scale public showing there, so this is very significant."

Indeed, SNIA member companies will showcase a multi-vendor storage area network (SAN) managed using a common interoperable interface for SANs being constructed by the SNIA. The "CIM-SAN" configuration is comprised of disk arrays, tape libraries, switches, host bus adapters, routers, NAS appliances, virtualizers, and storage management software. Zone management, volume management, LUN masking/mapping, asset management, and status monitoring using clients and servers will be the tasks exercised by CIM-SAN.

While some open source tools and infrastructure components are now available that will allow vendors to implement CIM/WBEM technology in products, many of the companies participating in the CIM-SAN demonstration are planning to ship CIM/WBEM-enabled products later this quarter and early next year.

EMC Director of Software Marketing George Mele, and Doug Cahill Vice President Business Development and Strategy at storage software upstart AppIQ, all spoke about what attendees can expect at the conference.

Mele told EMC will incorporate the SMI specification into the EMC WideSky Developers Suite. EMC plans to release SMI-enabled WideSky Software Developer Kits (SDKs) in 2003.

"It is our full intention to adopt CIM when it matures," Mele said. "It makes the architecture very nice and having this middleware mixture of CIM APIs go with it gives us choices. Every Widesky enabled app pushes CIM."

As for developments he'd like to see at SNW, Mele said he'd like to know just folks are writing CIM on the hardware side of things.

Cahill, whose AppIQ launched earlier this week, said his firm will demonstrate CIM-compliant storage resource management software that enables storage vendors to shorten development and reduce costs associated with delivering CIM-based products. AppIQ's CIMIQ platform is available to storage vendors interested in accelerating the development of CIM-compliant products. AppIQ also launched an associated partner program with such charter members as Brocade, Hitachi Data Systems, LSI Logic Storage Systems, Network Appliance, and Sun Microsystems.

"We're about lowering cost of ownership," Cahill said. "For every dollar spent on acquiring stored data, it costs $8 to manage it."

AppIQ wasn't born as a card-carrying CIM fan. Cahill said AppIQ revisited CIM and found the spec had matured. So, the company swears by it.

"It was pragmatic," Cahill explained. "So we flipped a bit. Now we are positioning ourselves as the Red Hat for CIM."

Pragmatic indeed. The may be one of the buzz words used to describe the interoperability standards demonstrated next week at Storage Networking World Fall 2002.

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