IBM Announces Open SAN Initiative

IBM Corp. (www.ibm.com) announced a $400 million initiative to apply storage area network (SAN) technology to e-business needs. The company hopes the move will spur the development of open standards within the SAN market.

The initiative includes expanded support and consulting staffs, new testing and demonstration facilities, and new models of IBM’s Shark storage server.

How open Big Blue’s SAN platform will be is a matter of debate, and applying the term "open" to an emerging technology raises some questions.

The current SAN market is immature and fragmented, with vendors offering distinct platforms with little interoperability. IBM has committed to open standards, suggesting that proprietary standards will lead to obsolescence, rather than dominance.

Colin Rankin, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. (www.gigaweb.com), suggests that there’s a trade off between how quickly a company can bring a SAN solution to market and how open their implementation is. With the immature SAN market's lack of standards, waiting for standards to emerge could result in a company being unable to make any kind of play for market share.

Like other vendors, IBM is opting for the most open standard possible, while still bringing a proprietary product to market. "They’re using industry standard componentry," Rankin says. But because IBM or another vendor may use standard components does not mean its SAN solution will be compatible with all SAN software and hardware or equivalent to a competitor’s solution.

In mature areas of storage such as tape media, multiple media vendors compete in the same standard -- Travan and Fujitsu DLT tapes are all compatible with DLT drives, yet they still compete on a number of levels. Currently, this is not the case in the SAN market.

IBM has announced one third-party vendor, McData Corp. (www.mcdata.com), that intends to market equipment compatible with the IBM setup. McData provides fiber switching equipment and complementary management software for SANs. IBM will resell the ED-5000 Enterprise Fibre Channel Director switch as part of its entire SAN package.

In addition, IBM says software vendors Veritas Corp. (www.veritas.com) and Legato Inc. (www.legato.com) market products compatible with IBM’s SAN design.

Having a handful of third-party vendors supply products for a SAN is not quite a full mix-and-match environment. Managers must either do extensive research to determine intercompatibility or purchase a prepackaged solution.

"Managers are dependent on the primary contractor," Rankin says, implying that SANs are subject to the whims of system designers and not possible with commodity hardware. "We’re hoping 12 months from now this won’t be the case," he says.

Rankin expects to see intervendor connectivity in the third quarter of this year, but is unsure of how this will be constituted.

Most systems where SANs are deployed now are homogenous networks, to the degree that Dell Computer Corp.’s NT solution does not officially support NT products from IBM. Interoperability between systems such as NT and Solaris is a while off, according to Rankin.

Perhaps this is not even a problem for the time being. "For clients with substantial storage assets, the big bank theory of SANs is not a popular one," Rankin admits. Most of the adoption of SANs is limited to specialized corners of systems.