Storage Standards, Part 3: Users Sound Off

Storage standards don’t top the list of customer needs.

In the first two parts of this feature (Part 1, Part 2)about the state of storage standards, I looked at the standards landscape mainly from the vendors' point of view—what they are doing and why. This week I turn to consumers—users of storage gear and software—and pose two simple questions:

  1. How important are standards in the storage-product purchasing process?


  2. Relative to issues such as performance, functionality, and price, do standards make the “top ten” list of product selection criteria?

The second question has to do with standards validation: I wanted to know what, if anything, consumers were doing to test and validate the claims by vendors that their products are standards compliant.

I put out the word and asked for input for this story. Many people came forward , and some responses were surprising by their length and depth.

It seems that most IT folks were very interested in standards, but rarely was standards compliance the bellwether of buying decisions. At the high end of the market, the Global 2000 consumer, the interest in standards was great. However, because these companies tend to purchase only from name-brand vendors and tend to build mostly homogeneous infrastructures, the assumption of standards compliance by their preferred vendors was a given and rarely tested.

According to Ron Singler, a storage architect with a $20 billion retailer in the Southeastern U.S., standards are not a huge concern to him—at least not with respect to storage hardware. His reasoning is straightforward: “The standards we have evaluated have been around for years, so we tend not to focus on them very much. I simply tell the vendors that we are running subsystem vendor xyz and if they don't work with that vendor, then we won't be buying their storage equipment.”

In the case of storage software, Singler says his company set forth its own standards rather than depending on external ones. “For software, we have tried to ensure that anything we evaluate conforms [to] our company standards first. Then we look at the individual vendor’s software and, again, we tell the vendor, ‘You will work with all the equipment we have or we won't buy your product.’ In a way, we have commoditized the hardware and software a bit by demanding that the vendors work with our other preferred vendors.”

Singler says he does not rely on standards to ensure product interoperability. “I expect the vendors to ensure interoperability. This was a big deal four years ago, but someone realized that users weren't going to purchase their equipment if they didn't work with other vendors. The irony, I think, is that as shops get larger, they tend to go with [a] minimal [number of] vendors to keep things simple as they continue to grow.”

More important than universal standards to Singler are airtight purchasing agreements that specify as requirements what real standards would deliver as a function of compliance. “One key note that I would say is to protect yourself in your master purchase agreements. Be sure that you can return the equipment for a refund if it doesn't meet performance needs, interoperability needs, etc. Always make sure your company is protected and get involved in the contract phase of the negotiations. Know what you have available to you as a recourse for problems you might run into during an implementation. You can put a tremendous amount of pressure on vendors to make things work if you protected yourself during negotiations.”

His view is echoed by a CIO for a discount retailer with operations in 46 states. Preferring to remain anonymous, the CIO told me, “I don't have an opinion on standards in this area, so I guess that means they aren't too important [to my purchasing decisions]. It's also easy to be cynical about standards, but if standards drive down price by commoditizing storage, great! If standards allow a single vendor's management tool to manage everyone's storage, great!” Neither of these purported benefits of storage standards has been delivered to the market yet, he says.

Another storage architect and IT manager for a large health care organization in the South proffered a different view: “Standards are less important if you are just connecting storage cabinets to a [FibreChannel] fabric and are not asking for anything else than presenting LUN’s to servers. However, if you want to collect the data that each vendor supplies, standards are very important.”

“Since each storage frame collects and supplies different information through different means, collecting this data may be impossible,” observes the architect. “HP is [our] storage vendor of choice, but we have three different types of HP frames: EMA from the old DEC/Compaq days, EVA (Compaq days), and XP (from Hitachi). Each uses different management consoles.”

Lack of standards also confuses the management of HBA drivers, he says, “[Because every vendor is doing his own thing,] we need separate HBA drivers for each frame and each one uses different queue depths and topology settings. This becomes especially problematic in the case where a Windows server has storage presented to it from an EMA cabinet and you want to mirror that storage to the XP array using host-based mirroring. All of the HBA drivers have to be within a revision of the base supported by the XP. Without standards, migrating data from one frame type to another (or from one vendor to another) is extremely difficult. Without standards, we are totally dependent on our vendors to provide the services necessary to protect our company data—and protecting the data is our most important job, especially in health care!”

The IT manager notes that he does not perform any formal testing for standards compliance in his gear because “space and budget do not allow this.” The result, he says, is that he is “at the mercy of HP and to some extent EMC, since EMC provides the storage for our patient accounting and records management systems.”

In the absence of good standards for Fibre Channel fabrics, he says, incompatibilities between the HP and EMC gear require him to host each brand of storage on a separate FC SAN, “We maintain them on separate fabrics as well as different buildings. I still have not figured out how to get all of my storage information into one location. I have not found a Storage Resource Manager [including one based on SNIA’s management standard, SMI-S] that works without errors across all storage platforms. And, believe me I have tried.”

Lack of standards has a significant long term impact, according to Mike Alvarado, principal with the Product and Business Development Company (PBDC) in San Jose, California. A long-time industry insider and infrastructure consultant to many Silicon Valley companies, Alvarado observes that the longer range the thinking of the storage strategist, the more important standards become “because they reduce the ongoing cost of managing and owning systems and devices. However, the in short term (e.g., less than two years), standards do not contribute very much to reducing these costs.”

He observes that standards imposed from outside the industry (regulatory requirements for example), require an immediate response that most companies have no choice but to make. “For example, the new Federal Rules of Civil Procedure must be complied with, although storage is the distinctly smaller end of the issue here. Inventory management, tracking, auditing, and reporting are far more important, and these are application-level concerns. Storage devices are only (pardon the pun) peripherally related to these matters.”

To Alvarado, price/performance is the major factor for determining which products to buy. “This factor is important to vendor selection although other factors, such as technology strategy and direction, are equally important with price/performance in larger firms.”

The same pertains according to Mike Linett, CEO of Zerowait, a Newark, DE-based storage engineering firm whose clients tend to seek high-performance storage solutions. “Everyone talks about standards. Almost everyone uses standard power cords and standard racks. When it comes to protocols and technology, adherence to standards seems secondary to meeting high-performance requirements.”

Referring to Zerowait’s experience with the demands of its clientele, Linett says, “If there is a new technology that can really boost performance, whether or not it is not standards compliant, engineers will be interested in it. But these are niche and emerging markets. In general, the cost of engineering talent for supporting non-compliant switches, routers, desktops, and laptops is enormous. Therefore, our customers tend to want performance and simplicity—and standards—on their mainline systems.”

Brad Tyler, CTO of Onstream Media, agrees with Linett up to a point. Onstream Media provides webcasting and other media services to a clientele that today includes 78 of the Fortune 100 companies. The company has distinctly high performance requirements and unpredictable workload requirements. These factors, as well as budgetary considerations, drove Tyler to purchase five terabytes of storage from 3PARdata, Inc.three years ago.

Standards were not as important as other criteria at the time, he freely admits. “Our selection at the time was based upon desire for drive utilization efficiency, less-than-linear OPEX with scale, flexible support in IOPS, capacity, and backplane under unpredictable traffic patterns. We have been happy with the results—particularly when we contrast our results with legacy storage from even common name vendors.”

To Tyler, “Standard is a big word. We are always aware of the need for standards, both from the level of systems interoperability and as a mechanism for growth into the future of storage technology. We look at traditional items such as connectivity or file/access methods as well as items such as the SMI [storage management specification]. Other things being equal, standards support will swing a decision [for one storage product over another].”

“[In the case of our selection of 3PAR at the time we purchased it, we had a] strong desire to keep operations costs down and hence a tendency to extend platforms rather than replace them if additional training or operations is needed,” Tyler explained. “As to standards valuation, we will pay more for standards compliance and standards as [a] vector to future growth options. We would not sacrifice interoperability-level standards for performance, but perhaps management standards [would be an area of compromise to get what we need.]”

Tyler noted that Onstream has recently tapped OnStor to provide greater network file system-based access to his streaming video data. He said that in lieu of formal interoperability standards for NAS gateway functions, he worked with both his RAID vendor (3PAR) and OnStor to ensure compatibility “and confirmed results with third-party users we have access to and whom we trust to be objective. Otherwise, we may have asked for a test.”

In lieu of uniform standards, Tyler concedes, there have been issues with storage infrastructure. Legacy host bus adapters have proven incompatible from time to time, leading Tyler to vet specific HBA products before purchasing them. “We have also had some NAS issues with simultaneous CIFS and NFS mounts, and there have been challenges working with our tape library vendor as their set up and configuration is idiosyncratic. We look forward to more standards development and adoption (in toto) in this area.”

While large enterprises tend to eschew standards that might lead to what Alvarado calls “the Tragedy of the Commons”—a scenario in which the overall performance of a system (broadly conceived as servers, networks, and storage) is dictated by the slowest performing component of that system (usually storage)—we wondered whether the other end of the market, the small-to-medium-sized firm, might be quicker to seize upon standards-based storage technology. We asked an integrator with a large SMB clientele and received an interesting response.

The integrator replied, “Ninety percent of our clients are small businesses and are still forced to consider price point first and foremost. They are looking for good bang for the buck. So, I would say affordable performance is what they are after most. To date, none of our clients [does] any standards testing on their storage products. Standards compliance is just not an issue or concern that I see in many small businesses with regards to storage.”

In summary, and based on the input to this column and the previous two, it is difficult to see how any progress might be made to improve storage standards. Until vendors are compelled by customers to make their products standards conformant, storage will remain the Wild West of information technology. Unfortunately, most consumers appear to have sacrificed standards on the altar of expediency: they need capacity today and are willing to deal with interoperability irritations, homogeneous infrastructure, and vendor lock-ins, and to leverage whatever purchasing power they have to get what they need.

On the other hand, it can be argued, standards-based storage and one-stop-shop storage platforms built on proprietary technology are orthogonal. Eventually, as consumers realize that they are paying entirely too much for a cabinet of overpriced “spinning rust” that hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years, they might just be driven to demand standards-based storage wares.

Until that happens, if it ever does, we might all need to take to heart the guidance of Mick Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you might just find [that] you get what you need.” Are you getting what you need? Drop me a line at jtoigo@toigopartners.com

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