Without a way to put together multivendor storage components and manage them effectively, much of the value proposition of storage-area networks (SAN) is moot. Users are either shackled to one seller's technology or face an expensive, laborious process in order to jury-rig management applications that work across all components of their SANs.

But now, slowly swimming through the murky waters of the standards adoption process, comes Bluefin, a storage management protocol drafted by a group of 16 vendors and presented for review in May to the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) in Mountain View, Calif. Late last month, the SNIA launched its Storage Management Initiative (SMI) aimed at fostering the full development and adoption of Bluefin and related specifications.

According to the SNIA, Bluefin will provide the key to making disparate storage hardware and software work together and thereby revolutionize networked data storage. Talk of revolution may be premature, however, since Bluefin is a consolidation of and an incremental step beyond two existing standards: the Common Information Model (CIM) and the Web-Based Enterprise Management interface.

CIM is central to Bluefin, providing an object model-a standardized way to describe the physical and logical components of the storage network. Each component has its own CIM profile, whether it's a disk array, a Fibre Channel fabric device or any other part of the network. If CIM provides the vocabulary of SAN management, Bluefin gives that vocabulary grammatical structure. That is, it standardizes the way the components communicate with one another and perform key functions.

Bluefin provides rules for three crucial services: device discovery (when a Bluefin-compliant product is plugged into a SAN, it announces itself and its capabilities to other SAN components); security against unauthorized reconfiguration of the SAN; and locking, which keeps various management applications from interfering with one another.

A key feature of Bluefin is its two deployment models. In the first, a Bluefin agent is embedded into a Bluefin-compliant storage device. In the second, the agent sits on a proxy server that intermediates between a management application and a storage device that doesn't support Bluefin. The second model is crucial because it allows Bluefin to support legacy storage installations.

Less Chaos

Bluefin advocates say the protocol would bring order to the now-chaotic process of SAN management in which each storage protocol and transport technology (such as Fibre Channel or IP) exports its own unique object model. The array of management interfaces in any single SAN can lead to a parallel inconsistency in the discovery and security features, as well as problems with the reliability of the software and devices.

If Bluefin is adopted and performs as advertised, the benefit to users could be immense. But the highly competitive storage vendors that backed the development of the protocol may have more to gain. Bluefin should shrink the time to market of SAN management applications and make it possible for vendors to create the kind of centralized, streamlined management products SAN users have been asking for. Vendors and the SNIA are betting that Bluefin will dramatically boost the market for SAN technology.

Veterans of other IT standards wars may view the emergence of Bluefin and its promise of multivendor interoperability with a jaundiced eye, but the specification certainly has the backing of the heavy hitters. The group of vendors that spawned Bluefin includes BMC Software Inc., Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Computer Associates International Inc., Dell Computer Corp., EMC Corp., Emulex Corp., Gadzoox Networks Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Hitachi Data Systems Corp., IBM, JNI Corp., Prisa Networks Inc., QLogic Corp., Storage Technology Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Veritas Software Corp. The cooperation of vendors in this ferociously competitive space signals that they know users are frustrated by the confusion in the industry and the difficulties they face managing their costly storage networks.

The need for a standard interface is clear, and Bluefin is the choice to fill that need. But timing is still a question.

When the SNIA launched its SMI earlier this fall, its stated goal was, "All storage managed by the SMI Interface [Bluefin] in 2005." But with not a single Bluefin product on the market yet, it remains to be seen if that ambitious schedule can be met.

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