Year of the SAN?

It’s possible that one of the most important developments in storage this year will be storage area networks (SAN). But it depends on whether key vendors commit to sensible plans for including SAN as fundamental parts of enterprise product lines and commit to standards-based interoperability. Looking around I see vendors attacking the marketplace, but not the standards issue.

When I ask, many organizations admit that SANs will eventually play an important role, but they are wary of the vendor and media hype surrounding the technology. Storage and systems vendors better hope they can break through the haze of hype and deliver on interoperable SAS product lines. The motivation is clear: A study by IDC suggests organizations will spend more than $30 billion on storage this year.

Some vendors are trying to steer clear of the hype by introducing interoperability labs in addition to their product lines. Hewlett-Packard (HP), for instance, recently announced it would invest $300 million into two SAN integration centers in Atlanta and Cupertino, Calif. The idea is to have a place where vendors can test and validate interoperability between SAS offerings.

In addition, HP announced a program for routine interoperability testing of SAN products with other storage vendors. HP expects the entire program to be launched by the end of the second quarter.

HP isn’t alone in trying to address the perceived failure to commit to interoperable SAN offerings. Compaq Computer Corp. says it is addressing SAN compatibility among competing vendors through a strategy called Open SAN.

An early salvo in the battle for the management side of SANs can be seen in Compaq’s partnership with HighGround Systems Inc., a provider of storage resource management software. While a fresh approach to SAN resource management software is welcome, you only need to read between the lines to determine that truly interoperable software management solutions are at least a year away for Compaq.

It’s not that Compaq isn’t trying: The company created a new enterprise storage line called SANworks and put several software products -- including Data Replicator Manager, Enterprise Volume Manager, Virtual Replicator, and Secure Path for Windows -- into that product suite. Compaq, in conjunction with the Storage Networking Industry Association, also started to construct its own lab, dubbed the Storage Networking Technology Center.

Still, enterprise-class IT shops have to wonder when truly interoperable SAN solutions are going to come to market. Interoperability testing labs, while necessary and welcome, miss the essential point: Without SAN standards, interoperability labs remain focused on interoperability with a specific product line. Customers should be bullying vendors to get into industry groups and build a robust set of standards for SAN products, serverless backups, and secured shared operating system storage.

One place to look for help is the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). Last year SNIA took a step to beef up its technical staff. Responding to customers who were complaining about how long it was taking to build standards, the SNIA appointed a technical director and a steering committee to help prioritize the work of moving SAN standards through the phases of conception, drafting, and deployment.

Like other industry standards groups, SNIA uses small working groups that take a specific requirement for SANs, then draft, propose, and refine standards for that need. Several working groups look like a Who’s Who of networking storage, but there’s a catch. Not every enterprise storage company belongs to SNIA. In addition, the day-to-day efforts of the working groups occurs in private, making industrywide buy-in awkward once the standards emerge.

An alternative to having SNIA drive the standards process is to find a networking vendor to drive the standards process. Having a vendor that has a stake in the networking component of SAN technology -- but not the storage side -- could kick start the SAN standards effort into higher gear. Until then we can expect to see vendors like HP, Compaq, Dell Computer, and IBM Corp. continue to offer better -- but proprietary -- product lines for SAN requirements.

The commitment of those vendors to the SAN marketplace is welcome, but without headway on SAN standards, the glass remains half empty. Maybe next year will be the year of the SAN. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.