The Little Initiative That Could

SNIA wants to assimilate the Enhanced Backup Solutions Initiative

At Storage Networking World 2003 in Scottsdale, AZ, the air temperature wasn’t the only thing heating up. So was the issue of who would lead the charge to find ways to resolve the many problems that end users confront in performing their daily backups.

Behind the scenes at the show, which organizers say attracted 750 end users, the Storage Networking Industry Association’s (SNIA) board of directors called a meeting with the board of the recently formed Enhanced Backup Solutions Initiative (EBSI). The stated objective: to find a way for the two organizations to “work together to achieve their common goals.”

EBSI was formed less than a year ago as an ad hoc group interested in ferreting out the many data protection options that existed between the extremes of tape backup and disk mirroring. Interestingly, the group comprised a mixture of smaller start-ups and established fixtures in the industry. It fielded a web site and did some marketing to the end user community about its goals and directions. More than 600 end users signed up to offer their facilities for testing or to otherwise partake in the fruits of the endeavor.

Full disclosure: I am an "end user ombudsman" on the board of directors for EBSI. While I do not belong to SNIA, I have in many previous columns endorsed their efforts.

The group began approaching other vendors to join its efforts when they ran into SNIA. The membership of SNIA, which was formed in the late 1990s, comprises most storage vendors (including those involved in EBSI) and after five years now boasts an end user membership of approximately 800.

For a number of reasons, SNIA never managed to resonate with end users and mainly served as an industry mechanism for countering the imposing presence of EMC in the industry. In fact, SNIA’s vendor membership swelled only after EMC announced its own Fibre Alliance in the late 1990s. SNIA's most popular initiative, centered on the Common Information Management (CIM) model (which it “acquired” from another quasi-standards development group), obtained a significant backing from the vendor community only as a response to EMC’s announcement of AutoIS and WideSky (its proprietary storage management platform).

Recently, several SNIA members, including a few prominent storage companies, have voiced displeasure with the organization. In an off-the-record interview, a senior executive for a major management software vendor told me his firm was considering dropping out of SNIA because “we see no differentiation for our products coming from our membership in that organization.” Whether the executive was suffering from a poor quarterly earnings report, or responding to IDC’s recent statement that EMC was losing market share in 2003, his sentiment was echoed by other participants in the informal conversation.

Representatives from several smaller firms stated that SNIA “was a lot like the United Nations: a few big companies comprise a Security Council that makes all the real decisions, and a lot of smaller companies are like the General Assembly, and their voices are never heard.” These folks said their companies were also thinking about abandoning SNIA, complaining that the association was too bureaucratic and too committed to the existing installed base of its key vendor members to be of much use in advancing new technologies. Against this backdrop, the two groups—SNIA and EBSI—parlayed for about an hour and, indicative of the outcome, everyone left the meeting with scowls. SNIA had argued that EBSI should come under the SNIA wing. They could set up a special Storage Networking Industry Forum (SNIF) to embody the EBSI effort. Such an arrangement would benefit EBSI by providing it with the name recognition of SNIA, which was fast becoming a global association.

In light of negative sentiments about SNIA expressed by some of the organization’s own members, EBSI questioned the value of SNIA's branding. Further discussion produced a litany of SNIA concerns about the little upstart initiative.

For one, the existence (and potential success) of EBSI in solving backup problems was a thorn in SNIA’s backside. It diffused the impression that SNIA was endeavoring to cultivate that all storage technology innovations emanated from that organization alone. Moreover, independent initiatives like EBSI competed for the same marketing dollars within the member vendor organizations that SNIA was tapping with its own membership dues.

One SNIA board member, a well-known vendor in the storage industry, complained that his firm could not afford to support both SNIA dues and independent initiatives. He back-peddled when it was observed by an EBSI board member that his company was preparing to sponsor another independent initiative of its own, and that every vendor had a right and a business obligation to put its marketing dollars into any initiative that made business sense, whether it was SNIA or non-SNIA based.

As the tone of the exchange became more strained, it came as little surprise that the SNIA “carrot” was followed by a “stick.” Someone observed that SNIA had long been considering addressing the problem of backup and had intended to create a SNIF for several years. While it was unclear why such an effort had never been formalized, the group was now going to launch its own group shortly. It was a veiled threat that SNIA, with all of its resources, would quickly usurp whatever claim to leadership that little EBSI might care to assert.

The funny thing was, no one at EBSI seemed terribly concerned about the SNIA “rival”—nor were they interested in usurping SNIA’s mantle. They just wanted what they had wanted all along: to help end users address their data protection problems. If SNIA wanted to create its own SNIF, that was okay with EBSI, so long as the job got done.

In fact, the only reason for not doing the work of EBSI under the auspices of SNIA was that the larger organization was noted for the delays and effort obfuscation associated with any large bureaucratic organization. Despite claims by SNIA that it is an industry innovator -- they commonly cite CIM and Bluefin as testimony to this assertion, despite much development of both “innovations” occurring outside of SNIA -- the organization was never intended to serve as an incubator, but as a mouthpiece. That is why it is properly termed an industry association.

Formation of a SNIA SNIF will create even more confusion within the vendor community about its relative value (which they will need to pay additional dues to join) and EBSI (with its separate membership dues). EBSI reports that the question of “Which group should I join?” has already come up in EBSI membership building efforts.

For what it's worth, I think EBSI has the grassroots appeal and the singular focus required to attack the problem of data protection and backup. It finds itself in a David-versus-Goliath turf war today that has nothing to do with end user needs and everything to do with the allocation of sponsor dollars and industry prestige.

Interestingly, EBSI didn’t see the conflict at all until SNIA brought it to their attention. My advice to SNIA is to back off and learn something about inclusionary politics. You can support worthwhile initiatives without having to own them.

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.