Is the SNIA a catch-22?

Storage analysts do not like to be reminded of it, but a little more than a year ago, when asked about the promise of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), storage analysts generally agreed that if any progress was to be made in achieving true interoperability standards for mixed-vendor storage networks, the path to such standards would go through SNIA.

Ask storage analysts today what the role of SNIA is in developing interoperability standards for the complex world of network storage, and they tend to parrot a less ambitious outlook regarding SNIA and its ability to drive standards.

In line with the current consensus of SNIA, Arun Taneja, a senior analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Mass., said, "SNIA is primarily a promotional tool for standards."

"Beyond the promotion, SNIA has been instrumental in getting vendors started on a particular concept. Not driving it all the way into a standard, but at least initiating something, getting vendors together to see if they can come up with a preliminary thing," Taneja said.

Not a bad idea. But SNIA is an organization made up of storage vendors, hundreds of them, from giants such as EMC and Hitachi to smaller players such as Bull Storage and Tricord. These companies, particularly the hardware vendors, compete with one another for storage business, causing many customers to cry foul.

"Vendors don't like to play together," said John Blackman, a systems analyst for the enterprise emerging technologies and consulting division of Wells Fargo in Minneapolis, Minn. On hand at a recent storage trade show in Chicago, Blackman said that despite the proliferation of vendors in the standards bodies, "no one truly wants to enable the other" for fear of losing their competitive edge.

Even SNIA officers admit that getting competing vendors to cooperate is something of a conundrum.

When asked if SNIA possessed an inherent catch-22, Sheila Childs, the vice chairwoman of SNIA's board of directors and the director of product marketing for storage software company OTG Software, said, "I think the answer is a yes and a no.

"There is vested interest that the hardware vendors have in their margins, and if you have truly interoperable products at all levels there is no incentive to choose, except for price," she said.

"However, we hear loud and clear from customers that they want choices, and interoperability will allow them that choice," Childs said. "We do aspire to interoperability, and that is in our mission statement -- to drive interoperability."

Childs said that from the beginning, the purpose of SNIA has been to act as "a barrier of entry" for vendors to take the first steps toward the establishment of interoperability standards. Using plug-fests, technical workgroups, and interoperability labs, SNIA assists vendors interested in forming interoperability standards to "evaluate the standard to be proposed to the standards body," giving proposed standards a better chance of being adopted, she said.

This can be a long, drawn-out process, said Steve Gardner, a product manager with storage and communication switch company LSI Logic, a member of SNIA.

"The dilemma is that [SNIA] is made up of vendors, and the vendors have competing interests and it can be tremendously slow moving process to reach any agreement," Gardner said.

Cooperation amongst rival companies can be something of an unnatural act, according to Chris Hagerman, the senior vice president of strategic operations at software company Veritas, also a member of SNIA.

"I don't know if it's catch-22 so much as that it's forcing large companies that are terribly competitive into doing unnatural acts," said Hagerman. "Fundamentally it is an unnatural act for the guy that develops storage arrays at EMC to call the guy who develops arrays at IBM and say 'I have new software and I want to get together and try to get them to run real well together.'

At the end of the day, there is some level of interoperability that these storage companies have to deliver on, but asking competitors who each day are trying to kill each other to cooperate closely, a move that will ultimately make their direct competitor more likely to displace them, seems like an unnatural act," said Hagerman.

Childs believes that all SNIA member companies understand the delicate balancing act that the quest for interoperability poses, and said SNIA itself, as an organization, tries to stay vendor-neutral.

"We would all like to see every technology succeed," Childs said.

The Enterprise Storage Group's Taneja praises SNIA for at least providing an open forum to address storage interoperability.

"I think the best you can do is maintain a harmonious environment in which people can actually communicate. To that they have done a good job," Taneja said.

"Interoperability is always a concern, but that will play itself out over time," Childs said.

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