The accordion effect

Gary Pilafas calls what the storage industry is experiencing right now the "accordion effect," referring humorously to the way the old-fashioned musical instrument makes music only when all that hot air is squeezed out. As a senior storage architect at UAL Loyalty Services Inc., the e-commerce arm of financially stressed United Air Lines, Pilafas has a front-row seat for this particular concert. "It's the march to consolidation," he said at Computerworld's Storage Networking World conference in Phoenix. "It's happening now, and it's a good thing."

Consolidating storage resources to cut costs and streamline management was a dominant chord struck at the gathering of 1,800 IT professionals, storage managers and vendors. When audience members were polled about what the top benefits of storage networking technologies are, consolidation was the top pick, beating out cost savings and improved functionality. IDC estimates that consolidating access and data management into a single location can slash storage management costs by up to 70 percent.

"Everybody into the resource pool" was another popular tune. That one refers to the flurry of virtualization software offerings now showing up to audition for skeptical users, who are rightly figuring that this technology has miles to go before its promises will be kept. Virtualization software holds out the hope of making disk space on different servers appear as a single storage pool, to be dipped into and divvied up as needed across the network.

But if this accordion effect is making music from consolidation and virtualization, what's getting squeezed out as so much hot air? The once-stunning profits from storage hardware sales and the future of proprietary or closed storage architectures.

The storage industry is sliding fast down the slope of hardware commoditization, sending vendors scrambling for new ways to make money as old business models slip away. Sales of disk storage fell from US$17.4 billion in 2001 to $13.3 billion last year, according to IDC. That sales decline also reflects the steadily dropping price of a megabyte of storage, which has plummeted at least 40 percent in the past few years. Meta Group predicts that while storage-related costs will constitute 70 percent to 80 percent of server purchases through 2004, storage hardware sales will decline 30 percent or more as the emphasis shifts to software, services and storage-area networks (SAN).

As this spending shift accelerates, so too will the migration toward open architectures and standards. If last week's conference is any indication, users will be dragging their vendors there by the hair. Storage managers ultimately want storage infrastructures to be as reliable, highly available and standardized as Ethernet networks.

"Standards have now gotten to the point where customers have been able to force some interoperability onto the vendors," noted Pierre Baudet, business systems manager at New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc. and a conference speaker.

Making a virtue out of that necessity, the Storage Networking Industry Association last week unveiled specifications for its long-anticipated Bluefin technology. This open management software interface standard -- designed to help users apply central controls to enterprisewide SANs -- already has the backing of dozens of storage vendors, including IBM, EMC, Hitachi, Sun and Veritas Software. Renamed as the Storage Management Initiative, or SMI, this specification is the storage industry's first giant step toward an interoperability standard.

So as we wait for the next chorus to begin, users should lean hard on their storage vendors to incorporate this emerging standard in upcoming products. And vendors should be asking themselves, "Do I want to make music or just blow hot air?"

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