It’s Not the Drill, It’s the Hole

Lousy component integration and ever-present infighting among Fibre Channel vendors may leave a hole in your wallet

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by a storage technologist in the employ of a well-known Fibre Channel switch maker. One slide in the man’s PowerPoint deck stuck with me. It was a quotation that the speaker said hung on the entry to his cubicle. The unattributed citation made a simple point: of the 60-odd million cordless drills sold last year, not one was sold to a consumer who was looking for a perfect drill. Rather, they were looking for a perfect hole.

I couldn’t tell you what else the speaker covered in his presentation, except that it quoted some questionable statistics and suspicious case study based data to suggest that Fibre Channel SANs were beginning to deliver all sorts of benefits to their users. They facilitated server and software license consolidation. They provided elbow room for burgeoning databases. They delivered 70-odd percent improvements in the efficiency of storage scaling, and did so non-disruptively.

His questionable statistics washed over me as I continued to ponder the quote. I found myself wondering how many consumers had actually purchased Fibre Channel fabrics because they were Fibre Channel fabrics, and how many had bought the technology because they wanted the hole.

The word “hole” began to take on life in my ruminations. In Florida, where I hail from, the last thing you want to think about is a hole. Sink holes, for example, that open up anywhere in your neighborhood are an anathema. The discovery of a sink hole that destroys the ground under your neighbor’s foundation has a tendency to lower property values throughout the neighborhood. I am convinced that many local governments in Florida endeavor to play down or to out-and-out conceal sink holes from public view. They have a depressing impact on community growth. The realtors, however, know about them and are obligated by law to disclose them to anyone considering the purchase of property in a sinkhole prone area. Too bad vendors aren’t required to disclose the vicissitudes of Fibre Channel fabrics to potential buyers.

As a resident of Florida’s Gulf Coast, there is another definition of hole that is familiar to just about everyone where I live. In this context, it refers to a boat. It doesn’t matter whether the boat is sail-powered or motor-driven; every boat is a hole into which money is continuously poured. Ask anyone who has ever owned one: they will tell you stories about fees for licenses and for dock or ramp access, expenses for training and certification of boat operators, the costs of maintenance including the time you spend on cleaning and purging salt spray and barnacle buildup (the hidden labor costs of boat ownership), costs for marinas and dry docks, yacht club memberships, nautical wear, and the numerous hassles around nautical electronics. The parallels to Fibre Channel fabrics are amazing.

My good friend and partner in South America, Oscar Ernst, recently sent me a tongue-in-cheek piece he had written regarding boating electronics. I won’t steal Oscar’s thunder, but suffice it to say that vendors of geographical positioning systems and navigation electronics behave a lot like storage vendors, he discovered, while shopping for a trawler in Miami a couple of months ago. There are incompatibilities built into their wares that prevent components from different manufacturers from working with and exchanging information between each other—a lot like heterogeneous FC fabrics.

There is even an industry association, the National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA), that probably has a solid case for a lawsuit against the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) for plagiarizing its Web site, should it ever care to bring it. Both organizations seem equally bureaucratic, top heavy with egos and brand name vendors, and both appear equally incapable of doing very much to bring sanity and connectivity to their respective industries. (I’ll let Oscar draw the many other parallels when he publishes his story.) In the meantime, if you want a double espresso of déjà vu, just visit the NMEA web site (http://nmea.org), then quickly point your browser to http://snia.org and see what I mean.

Bottom line: The lousy component integration and ever-present infighting among nautical electronics vendors, much like Fibre Channel “SAN” vendors, contributes to the perception of their respective wares as “holes.” Just be prepared to open your wallet and pour its entire contents into the maw of the SAN once you deploy one.

Which brings me to my third contextual definition of a “hole:” the hole in your pocket, your checkbook, or your IT budget. As kids, when we had a few coins and were frantic to spend them on something (anything!), my mother used to tell us that the money was “burning a hole” in our pockets. If you have money to spend, or desperately need a storage platform to host your growing data, don’t just rush to buy a Fibre Channel fabric.

You have options today—including clustered NAS with hybrid NAS/SAN functionality: check out Left Hand Networks, Silicon Graphics, or Panasas, among others—and the list is growing. Heck, in many cases, Spectra Logic’s new RXT platform might provide a highly effective, highly scalable, and low cost primary storage solution, though the company currently contextualizes it rather narrowly in terms of data protection.

In the final analysis, many non-SAN vendors are busily combining iSCSI and NFS/CIFS/HTTP or a clustered file system du jour to create scalable storage repositories that will soon dwarf clumsy FC fabrics in terms of connectivity and management capabilities.

My three points aren't probably what what the speaker was hoping I'd leave understanding, but I think maybe we need to buy our storage for the hole it helps to fix rather than the one it helps to create. Your thoughts are welcomed: jtoigo@intnet.net.

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.