Opinion: Mother of all standards

What do Saddam Hussein and networked storage have in common? They're both the subject of intense negotiation and coalition building as competing parties try to find a common approach to a big problem. With Saddam, the problem is neutralizing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. With networked storage, the problem is getting devices of mass storage (pardon the poetic license) from different vendors to work together.

And just as with Saddam Hussein, there are two approaches to tackling storage interoperability. One is the "United Nations" approach, where leading members of the world community argue and try to agree on a common approach. In storage, that group is the Storage Networking Industry Association, and its equivalent of a UN Security Council resolution is the Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMIS), which is being rolled out this week in Orlando.

SMIS, formerly called Bluefin, is a common set of specifications that different vendors can use to allow their storage devices, and storage applications, to communicate with one another. It's designed to be totally open and usable by any vendor, and it has gathered support from virtually every significant storage player. Products that support SMIS should begin shipping this year, although it will take several years for the standard to mature.

But even while pledging allegiance to the SMIS UN approach, pairs of vendors are also taking the unilateral (or, to be fair, bilateral) approach of trading APIs and cross-licensing their technologies to ensure their products work together. Among the recent deal makers are Hewlett-Packard and Hitachi Data Systems, HP and IBM, and HP and EMC.

The bilateral approach solves the immediate interoperability problems more quickly than waiting for an industry group to agree on standards and for member companies to implement those standards. It also helps vendors to keep selling their proprietary products and support their existing customers while the standards efforts play out. But the bilateral deals help only customers of those particular vendors, keep those customers vulnerable to lock-in by those vendors and leave the really big interoperability problems for future generations to solve.

Just as in international politics, regional alliances and local wars complicate the picture. Four vendors -- IBM, Hitachi, Sun and Veritas Software -- this month teamed up to speed the production of SMIS-compliant products. This could be an attempt to isolate industry giant EMC, which is trying to draw support to its own WideSky storage middleware as an interoperability fix. Critics call WideSky proprietary, but EMC insists it's open and will work with SMIS -- as one interoperability interface among many. EMC and Hitachi would find it hard, meanwhile, to team up on their own API swap while they're mired in patent-infringement suits against each other.

Just as in international relations, there's a mix of idealism and calculated self-interest at work on all sides. To take the cynical view, no vendor would publicly reject "open standards," because that would imply it wants to lock in customers to its own products. But to give the vendors credit, developing and testing individual interfaces to one another's products can be an expensive waste of engineering time that could be better spent developing new, better products. Finally, and most strategically, most vendors realize that open standards create larger markets, which mean more opportunity for everyone.

Will peace, sweet reason and strict adherence to standards prevail among the vendors? Or will fragile attempts at compromise break down in misunderstanding and bickering, leaving our host bus adapters and storage-area network switches fighting for generations? It's too soon to tell. But while the diplomatic efforts continue, customers can keep up their "UN membership" by pressuring vendors to make their products SMIS-compliant as soon as possible. At the same time, customers must keep their powder dry by forcing vendors to guarantee the specific interoperability they need before signing the purchase contract.

Storage networking isn't exactly life-or-death, and there are no out-and-out villains like Saddam Hussein. But the same rules apply: Give diplomacy its best shot, but stay prepared to defend yourself.

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