Xiotech on the Right Path

Ask a dozen executives about the state of storage resource management and you’ll get ten different answers, but one company -- Xiotech -- has shown the way to true management nirvana with its Web services-based management architecture.

I recently surveyed about a dozen storage vendors about the state of storage resource management. The results were not surprising. In particular, I received mixed messages concerning the readiness of the Storage Networking Industry Association’s Storage Management Initiative - Specification (SMI-S) to perform the job of standardizing management interfaces and making administration of sprawling heterogeneous storage infrastructure a lot easier in the process.

Roger Reich, once a key player in SMI-S from his former perch as technology maven at Veritas and now CEO of a startup company called Olocity, said in the survey that huge strides had been made and that SMI-S was fully baked. He said that SMI-S demonstrated how millions of lines of flaky code that SRM vendors needed to write to deal with proprietary vendor application programming interfaces could be replaced by a much smaller and more elegant code base to collect information from an SMI “provider” on each piece of gear.

The only thing standing between us and storage management heaven was vendor implementation of SMI support on their hardware, Reich asserted. He noted that many vendors had written providers, but they varied widely in terms of the access and control that they proffered to a management console -- something that his new company was out to change by facilitating good implementations of SMI for both vendors and consumers.

Another point of view was offered by Jamie Clifton of BridgeHead Software. Along with many in the survey, he decried the unfulfilled promise of SMI-S but took heart in the positive movement toward Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web services, which he saw as having the potential to provide an alternative -- or a complement -- to SMI-S, API-based management, SNMP, and the other kluge of hooks that are currently accessed by SRM tools to gain visibility into infrastructure status and in rare cases to manage configurations from a single point.

I might have dismissed Clifton as a dreamer, and his comments as just so much fluffy nomenclature, had it not been for the visit I made to snowy Minneapolis to meet with Xiotech. SOA is one of those terms designed for tech marketing -- having as many different meanings as there are vendors who use it in their marketing literature. The same applies to Web services or integration: ask ten vendors to define Web 2.0 and you’ll get at least ten definitions; integration has at least 200 different meanings.

How did the visit to Xiotech change my impression? I found that the company is actually using Web services to advance a management scheme for their storage devices. Although I don't doubt that the other patented technologies that Xiotech currently embeds on its Magnitude line of arrays have enormous collective value, I couldn’t help but feel that their Web services-based management approach is the real jewel in the crown.

Xiotech is already receiving rave reviews from its customers regarding its ICON Manager, the tool used to configure its storage arrays. This GUI is powerful and intuitive and worthy of emulation by every storage vendor on the planet. In a demonstration in their lab, we configured a storage volume with just a few clicks and associated it with an application within -- literally -- a minute and a half.

The important thing was that the process was straightforward. There was no "go here and find the worldwide names of the physical drives from which you wish to create a volume, then jump over here and find the LUNs to aggregate, then go back to find the name again so you can expose this collection of spinning rust as a volume, then find port addresses or HBA addresses on the server hosting the application in order to make the physical connections to the new volume, etc." That convoluted method of making the server-to-storage attachment is dramatically simplified within ICON -- almost as though they understand that we have better things to do than to write down spindle and port addresses on our wrists all day. Configuring storage volumes and associating them with an application host is done in step-by-step, linear process that my 83-year-old mother could grasp! Truth be told, if managing Fibre Channel had been this easy from the get-go, I probably would not have been so hostile to the technology early on.

A drool-proof interface is part of what makes Xiotech much beloved among the 2000-plus customers that the company currently supports, about half of whom have deployed multiple boxes from the company. What is significant about the ICON Manager is that it sits on top of a Web services foundation that enables other companies, including SRM providers, to interface simply with the box and add value to the platform. Tek-Tools has already taken advantage of this interface method to add a complementary trend analysis and reporting capability in its Storage Profiler SRM package, and I’m sure that other vendors will follow shortly.

For all the industry hype around SMI-S, which has failed to deliver the promised unified storage management paradigm, Xiotech has shown the way to true management nirvana with its Web services-based management architecture. ICON Manager and its supporting service layer is worthy of emulation by every storage vendor out there. I hope that they are paying attention.

It is too easy for three-letter vendors to dismiss Xiotech as a small player, but they do so at their own risk. I recall that only a year or two ago, disparaging remarks were made by Big-Iron shops about Compellent, 3PAR, LeftHand Networks, and others regarding the “little innovations” they were doing on their boxes -- that is, until technologies such as de-duplication, thin provisioning, continuous data protection, inexpensive clustering, and cost-effective block change replication over a WAN began to resonate with consumers. At that point, the big guys looked like they were standing still, while the small companies started nibbling away at their market mindshare. Not surprisingly, you now see announcements from EMC and others noting that they are adding these new features to their arrays this year -- sometimes by gobbling up the "pacesetters" to get their intellectual property.

From where I’m standing, Xiotech’s Web services-based management is more important than all of the other aforementioned value-add features combined. It holds out the hope of doing something meaningful and strategic to reign in the costs of storage infrastructure by enabling better heterogeneous management. Without it, to paraphrase Reich, storage management means using millions of lines of code to integrate a rat’s nest of vendor interfaces of wildly differing degrees of functional capability that place an enormous drag on IT resources in heterogeneous IT shops. That’s what consumers dislike about SRM products today, and that’s why Web services-based management is so important.

I have a non-disclosure agreement in place with Xiotech which prevents me from talking about some other important advancements I saw in Minneapolis. However, this I can say: with the acquisition of Seagate’s Advanced Technology Group, Xiotech has some things brewing that, if handled correctly, could change the face of storage as we know it. As cool as these new technologies are, however, ICON Manager and its Web services foundation might just be the real innovation worth watching.

Your comments are welcome: jtoigo@toigopartners.com.