'Tis the (Trade Show) Season

A host of trade shows this Fall give a glimpse into what storage vendors are up to.

The Fall storage conference season is ramping up. I am presently in New York City at the third installment of Storage Decisions, a moveable feast that has already traveled to Chicago and Toronto and will conclude its 2008 run in San Francisco in late November. Still ahead is Storage Networking World, the twice-yearly event controlled by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), and several vendor-specific events that provide a means for vendors to communicate their objectives for the coming year to their customers and to the press.

Here's a round-up of what's going on and what's in store.

This year about 600 people attended Storage Decisions, on par with past years though substantially smaller than the throngs the show attracted in its heyday. TechTarget, the organizer, isn't in it to fashion itself as a quasi-standards group (such as SNIA), an industry mouthpiece (such as SNIA), or as the only source of storage truth (à la SNIA). Instead, the Storage Decision show is all about trading vendor sponsors well-attended events and access to potential buyers in exchange for a lot (and from what I'm told, a whole lot) of money.

The agenda features mostly analysts communicating their latest survey data, market ruminations, and technology perspectives. That's okay with the sponsors who are generally not given a bully pulpit at the show and who are, interestingly, prohibited from attending the PowerPoint presentations in the main hall and in breakout rooms.

Standing out on the agenda are Howard Goldstein's "Storage 101" presentations, which explore the meanings of protocols and concepts in storage. It never ceases to amaze me how far afield of legitimate interpretations of technology terms and language the storage industry marketing people manage to take us in their brochures and advertorials. Goldstein refreshes and reconfirms the original meanings of these things to IT consumers, who are often concerned that they might be out of touch with the "2.0" interpretations (proffered by vendors) of things they thought they understood.

For the rest of the agenda, most analyst presentations seem to be stilted toward favorite vendors or technologies, though there is some effort to either remain vendor neutral or to diss all vendors equally. A welcome change from past events is the elimination of swearing contests between Enterprise Strategy Group head Steve Duplessie and representatives of other analyst groups such as Gartner, which no longer attends the event.

The day before the show began, I wandered around the trade show floor as booths were being set up and chatted with some of the sponsors. One young fellow remarked, "Two years ago, EMC stopped sponsoring this show. This year NetApp isn't here. Do you think that impacts the credibility or importance of the show?"

That's an interesting question. With two of the leading vendors in storage sales not in attendance, does the show lack probative value in predicting or demonstrating "mainstream" storage technology? For me, it has no impact at all. IBM, rated number one by market trackers in storage sales, and Hitachi Data Systems, also a behemoth in enterprise storage, were both on board. Dell and HP were in the trade show as well. Dell resells EMC, though you might not have thought so from the primary thrust of its booth marketing, which focused on EqualLogic. IBM resells NetApp, though at this event they seemed to be pushing their latest acquisitions, XIV and in-line de-duplication engine, Diligent Technologies.

I prefer visiting with start-ups and smaller firms, where next-generation technology tends to be born, rather than conferring with large vendors who routinely fill my inbox with meeting requests and analyst call advisories. Smaller firms, including ProStor, F5, and others, were at the Storage Decisions show in force, as were stalwarts such as Spectra Logic, Overland (now with the intellectual and hardware assets of a favorite NAS vendor, SNAP Appliance), and about 20 others. A solid offering of storage kits could be seen for the price of attendee registration -- which is free.

Interestingly, I had several conversations with vendors who are evolving a W3C-standard Web services approach to managing their gear and for integrating their offerings into a top-down resource management and allocation scheme already supported by application software from Microsoft, Oracle, and others. I believe that this is critically important for the future as companies seek to contain costs in their IT organizations by reducing staff and deferring large CAPEX purchases: to get there, we need to deconstruct storage kits, eliminating pricey stovepipes and replacing them with a service-based model in which desirable functionality is exposed on routers, gateways, and appliances in a network; storage devices deliver basic functions that reduce their cost; and data is routed through appropriate services on its way to the storage array as dictated by policy.

Xiotech is leading the way with its Intelligent Storage Element (ISE) platform, a Lego-like building block array that is already fully Web-services enabled. Many other vendors I spoke to have Web services strategies in development for their products that should be announced over the next quarter.

Up Next: SNW

In a couple of weeks is the next installment of SNW, where you will probably not find any substantial discussion of storage deconstruction given organizer SNIA's predilection to reinvent the wheel in a way that preserves and protects the stovepipe designs of its primary vendor members.

In fact, SNIA will be using the upcoming event to promote its Storage Management Initiative-Specification (SMI-S) and eXtensible Access Method (XAM) as "architectures" for standardization by ANSI and ISO. I am not sure what they mean by "architecture," but maybe Howard Goldstein can explain it to me - or to SNIA - because he also presents his basic plumbing training programs at that show.

SNW was originally conceived as a vendor tent show -- a B2B event -- with a trade show tacked on for consumers. It morphed into a consumer show for a time under the guidance of Computerworld, which sought to make it a profitable event. As attendance (and SNIA membership) declined over the years, SNIA took control of the agenda and began to impose a "discipline" on the content of the event reminiscent of heavy-handed political regimes. It became essentially a mouthpiece for the perspectives of SNIA's board of directors, comprised of the largest storage vendors in the business.

If you're a storage buyer who believes storage brands are more important than storage technology, SNW is your show.

SNW is well attended by industry analysts (particularly IDC, which is part of the IDG/Computerworld family of companies), who seem to split their time between pushing their vendor-subsidized analyses on stage and promoting (read: selling) their services to vendors over drinks. Worth seeing is Noemi Greyzdorf, research manager for storage software at IDC, and one of the few analysts in that firm who seem to have actually seen the inside of a data center.

If you really need to preview marketing messages that will inundate you in the trade press over the next six months, attend the SNIA event. I, for one, have opted out of this show based on my sense that the canons of SNIA are less and less relevant to business requirements. Moreover, SNIA's excessive control over show content has reduced the informational value of the event to something approximating a political campaign ad.

Vendor Shows

The balance of the storage shows this Fall are custom events coordinated by individual vendors to serve as customer loyalty builders and press-announcement venues. Most of the major vendors have their own events, usually held in Las Vegas, NV.

Las Vegas is synergistic with storage, and maybe with tech generally, and most vendor events are well served by the backdrop. For one thing, there is hardly a city in North America that does not provide convenient air routes to Sin City. (Reno, by contrast, is falling into greater obscurity and isolation as more and more airlines discontinue direct flights to that picturesque, if somewhat diminutive, casino-plus-conference town.) Ease of access helps keep these vendor shows well attended, not to mention the whole what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas thing. Some of the hotels are truly world class and, with the gaming industry in a slump at present, rooms can be had at a price that makes William Shatner seem like a poor negotiator.

I happen to think that storage and slot machines go so well together that vendors need not consider hosting events anywhere else. After all, what is a storage array these days but a cobbling together of proprietary software and controller wedded to obscenely overpriced commodity disk drives? Just like slot machines, storage is fundamentally easy to understand. You write data to an array, and if the odds are favorable, you get some of your data back.

Extending the metaphor, many storage gear selections are made by brand. Some slot players seek out red, white, and blue machines, the ones that give you a couple of credits back when no icons appear on the payline. It may be a small consideration, especially when you realize that the house is going to get all of your credits in the end, but folks seem to like it. Other players look for Triple Diamond machines, Sizzling Sevens, or Wheel of Fortune systems for some of their mostly irrelevant differentiators: just like storage arrays.

Of course, just as with slot machines, storage consumers continuously pay money into the storage infrastructure in the form of annual licenses for software and maintenance and support contracts, often for functionality and services they don't use or don't really need. How most of these features -- de-duplication, automatic tiering, virtualization, and thin provisioning, for example -- actually do their work inside the array is typically as mysterious as the inner workings of a one-armed bandit. On the contemporary slot, reels of bars, sevens, and cherries spin by when you pull the lever (or press the "virtual lever" on the slot key pad), amusing you with happy lights and sounds to distract you from your lack of understanding of the inner workings of the machine itself.

Moreover, most slots, like most storage arrays, have added an abstraction layer that further separates you from machine operations. Reels aren't real; they are video displays. Even the sound of coins dropping into a tray are simulated; instead of getting messy with coin dust, the machine prints out your winnings in a bar-coded receipt. That's a lot like storage, where increasingly spindles are virtualized, volumes are abstractions of virtual spindles, and real capacity is not revealed (in part because your vendor doesn't want you to know how much capacity he is holding in reserve for software that he hopes to sell you going forward). As in slots play, it's hard to keep track of how much you're spending for the capacity you have.

In storage, as in slots, a malfunction voids all play and pay. I'm sure I will be at a few of the Vegas events and maybe I will see some Enterprise Strategies readers around the casinos. Until then, your comments are welcome: jtoigo@toigopartners.com.