HP's Muddled Storage Vision

HP won't be caught selling a storage solution that doesn't fit its vision because it doesn't seem to have a vision yet.

A couple of months ago, I received an interesting e-mail from an attorney involved with the HP-Compaq merger. The correspondence contained nice words about my book, The Holy Grail of Data Storage Management, and extolled its value in helping HP's lawyers to understand storage technology so that they could properly frame the two companies' storage product offerings and avoid anti-trust hassles. I was flattered, but at the same time concerned that someday someone somewhere would blame me for whatever storage technology emanates from "the New HP."

Of course, of significantly greater importance than my paltry concerns is the fact that a lot of confusion persists in the user community about the meaning of the Compaq-HP merger and what impact it will have on its existing investments in storage technology. In the short term, this confusion will likely influence how willing companies will be to hitch their storage wagon to the New HP's star.

A Tale of Two Vendors
Compaq and HP have a lot in common. Both organizations have their share of smart storage developers. Both have their fair share of bureaucrats and "marketects." However, the two companies also have very different corporate cultures. Recent history explains how these differences arose and why they're important.

Not long ago, Houston, Texas-based Compaq went on a buying spree that netted the company a good deal of intellectual property and market share. Among the more significant acquisitions were Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) and Tandem Computer Corp. The assets and installed customer bases from these companies helped propel Compaq to the forefront of the industry and made it one of the three largest technology companies in the world.

Based in large part on ideas from DEC, Compaq published its Enterprise Network Storage Architecture (ENSA) white paper in 1997. In so doing, it set the groundwork for an entirely new storage paradigm—the storage area network (SAN)—and started a buzz around networked storage that hasn't quieted down even in the current business economy.

During the same period, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co.—a powerhouse in Unix servers and printers—seemed to be struggling to develop any storage technology of note. Before handing over the corporate reigns to Carly Fiorina, former CEO Lew Platt stated publicly his concerns that the company had lost its roots as a technology innovator and was dangerously close to becoming a reseller of other vendors' hardware.

At the time, HP resold EMC Symmetrix gear to its enterprise customers. Then, after a much-publicized falling-out between the two partners, it began hawking Hitachi Data Systems products. Of course, HP also introduced several platforms of its own along the way. Despite cool names, such as "Extreme Storage," the products were generally met with ho-hum reception in the marketplace.

As it struggled to build a storage business, HP also struggled to divine a "visionary message" with which to unify its disparate storage offerings. HP marketeers borrowed a trendy concept called storage area management (SAM) and sprinkled in a hip term coined in the server industry, "federated computing," to create its own storage "vision:" Federated Storage Area Management (FSAM).

FSAM was never really understood by anyone outside HP's own marketing department, and the recent creation of "the New HP" has helped to muddy the meaning even further. If anything, the merger increased the importance of clarifying FSAM for prospective HP consumers (such as readers of this column). An end user who heads the IT research and development department for a Fortune 1000 financial institution wrote me asking: "I understood the ENSA vision from Compaq, but I can't figure out HP speak. What does FSAM mean? Will ENSA or FSAM become the dominant vision of the New HP?" In a follow-up phone interview, he said he would be less inclined to buy anything from the New HP until he got a straight answer.

That Vision Thing
Some readers may recall a lively—and mostly meaningless—debate during a U.S. presidential race a few elections back that centered on "the vision thing." Pundits argued endlessly over which candidate was actually the visionary leader and statesman (as opposed to a vision-less party hack or bureaucrat). Most vision debates in technology are of the same ilk: mostly meaningless discourse.

Occasionally, however, technology vision does have a meaning. The RAID paper from the University of California at Berkeley is one example. The authors presented a set of architectural models to define how data would be stored in Redundant Arrays of Inexpensive (later changed to Independent) Disks. This document offered a vision for data storage, a fairly precise taxonomy to explain variations between different RAID "levels," and a set of standards for qualifying a product as a member of one of the RAID levels.

ENSA (that is to say, the original version of the white paper and not the "marketecture" offered by Compaq in its "ENSA 2" brochure) did the same thing. It provided a definition for a SAN, a discussion of the properties of a SAN, and set the standards by which products would be judged to be true SANs.

By comparison to RAID or ENSA, HP's FSAM is not a vision. In fact, I'm not entirely sure I know what to call it. Neither, apparently, does HP.

On its Web site, HP Storage invites readers to learn more about FSAM. Clicking on one link takes you to a white paper entitled "Federated Storage Area Management—HP's Vision and Strategy for the Future of Storage."

As part of this paper, the vendor articulates its FSAM "vision" by codifying key attributes of FSAM storage, which it defines as "physically separate domains, types, and vendors of networked storage devices that operate as one logical resource." The attributes of FSAM storage are listed (see "HP's Nine Attributes of FSAM Storage").

HP's Nine Attributes of FSAM Storage

  1. Mobile: Data is easy to move and copy, on demand or by policy, between multiple logical and physical locations.
  2. Innocuous: The expansion of, and need for, storage is transparent to the physical and logical environment.
  3. Elastic: Storage resources expand and contract, on demand or by policy, without application interruption.
  4. Persistent: Data is immediately protected at its inception and remains protected until it is removed from access by human intervention or policy.
  5. Secure: Data is protected from access by an unauthorized application or user.
  6. Economic: The total cost of managing storage decreases as scale increases.
  7. Responsive: Storage responds within the service level parameters defined by the application.
  8. Visible: Storage is accessible to authorized users irrespective of location and infrastructure.
  9. Automated: Storage administration is simplified through the use of automation technology.

The document's author is quick to point out that FSAM is a "future storage environment"—one that HP will strive to help its customers evolve toward.

All in all, the paper reads less like vision than an airy marketing brochure. This perception is reinforced when you click on another FSAM link on the HP site, which opens yet another white paper, where you'll read: "FSAM is not a product, it is not a vision—it is a strategy that governs how HP serves enterprise storage customers." The paper goes on to note that FSAM embraces openness, manageability, investment protection, and new technology. Basically, this is a reseller/integrator's mantra, and not a vision for storage technology.

Other information from the company Web site confirms that HP offers a broad range of products (often from different vendors), that it supports a couple of different virtualization appliances, and that it has a network management tool (OpenView) that it wants to use for storage as well as network management. Interestingly, no mention is made of Compaq's out-of-band virtualization technology, VersaStor, nor of Compaq's Storage- Works, which is considered by many to be the storage technology jewel in the Compaq crown.

While one could concede that the merger is still very new and that it sometimes takes a while to update one's market positioning and Web sites, this doesn't answer the central question: What is HP's vision with respect to storage?

The answer, based on informal conversations with several HP functionaries and a diligent examination of text and multimedia references on the Web, appears to be that HP offers strategy—but no real vision. There is no difference between the FSAM "future" and the current kludge of storage topologies, components and platforms managed via half-baked storage management software products.

Vision? We Don't Need One
Basically, FSAM asserts that HP will do its best to get lots of storage products to work and play well together and will offer paid professional services to help its customers maintain their storage components in good operating condition. The company will help its customers work around current problems in their heterogeneous storage environment and help them cope until some real visionary storage infrastructure comes along.

To HP, the benefits of this approach are several. For one, the vendor will never be caught selling a solution that doesn't fit its vision, since it has no vision to fit.

Second, one could argue that you don't need a vision to sell storage anyway. Think about it: Analysts say that 60-odd percent of storage spending is done by the top five percent of companies. Moreover, most large corporations only keep their hardware for a couple of years. Under these circumstances, one could reasonably ask why a strategic vision is required at all? One could further ask why, if none of the other storage vendors has a vision, should HP develop one?

Third, not articulating a vision like Compaq's ENSA also keeps HP above the fray of technology "holy wars." Like a good arms salesman, you can clean up by selling technology to both sides in any architectural dispute. It is eminently more practical to be opportunistic than it is to be visionary. Lots of companies with vision have failed. Why not avoid the holy wars altogether and take the position of helping customers cope with any assemblage of mix-and-match hardware they care to field?

Fourth, not having a vision pushes the responsibility for developing one out to the consumer and sidesteps many potentially problematic marketing issues. HP marketeers might be asking why it's the vendor's job to come up with the vision. Why doesn't the consumer do that himself?

The above assertions, while intended to be tongue-in-cheek, also contain a kernel of truth. The vision thing is not a guarantee of success for a storage vendor, even if it might help ease some customer confusion, and many vendors have steered well clear of it.

Texan Rallying Cries
But not Compaq. Attribute it to Texan obstinacy if you want, but Compaq saw fit in 1997 to articulate a storage vision. In part, the company did this because of a belief, embedded in its corporate culture, that without a clear vision, there can be no technology roadmap and no goal toward which to strive.

By contrast to HP's FSAM, Compaq's ENSA described a networked storage future in very specific terms and established criteria for use in determining whether a bunch of cables, switches, software, and storage platforms comprised a real SAN. Perhaps a signature trait of Compaq culture, developers presented the ENSA vision like a bold quest. They made it into a rallying cry that resonated with consumers and created an entirely new market.

A vision is bold when it tortures the marketing department. To the dismay of Compaq marketeers on more than one occasion, its own SAN products were shown to fall well short of the ENSA vision. Even when this happened, those cantankerous Texans could always hold up the ENSA vision as a testimony to Compaq's leadership in the industry.

HP's California culture, by contrast, seems to favor vendor agnosticism as the ultimate value. While it is true that we need to find ways for heterogeneous storage infrastructures "to all just get along," it's difficult to translate this goal into a rallying cry.

Consumers are looking to vendors to point the way to the future. World-class vendors respond with a vision.