Mixing and matching storage

Why can’t they all just get along? That may be a cliché in these interesting times, but it can be asked about more than just the world’s races, religions and ideologies. Networked storage products, for instance. Despite promises of interoperability, making multiple vendors’ hardware and software work seamlessly together remains challenging.Standards help, and the problems of mixing and matching suppliers are not as daunting as they were a few years ago. But care – some say a lot of care – is still required.
“Interoperability is a nice word, but it’s still a fairy tale most of the time,” says Steve Duplessie, founder and senior analyst at The Enterprise Strategy Group, Inc., in Milford, Mass. “Vendors panic that standards will marginalize their products, which is short-sighted and naive, but that’s what they think.”
EMC Corp. of Hopkinton, Mass. tests its products to see how well they work against those from other vendors.
“There’s still going to be a reliance on selecting who your primary and secondary vendors are and what support they provide,” admits Wayne Adams, senior technologist in the office of EMC’s chief technology officer. Vendors test their products with those of certain other vendors – particularly marketing partners, but sometimes others as well. EMC has operated its E-lab program for about 10 years, says Ron Lloyd, the company’s manager of interoperability marketing. EMC guarantees customers that “we will own resolution of interoperability problems for any qualified configuration.”
The resulting seals of approval create an interoperability matrix that assures buyers and resellers product A works with product B — but in the absence of such tests, whether either one works with product C is uncertain. They may — but not necessarily without tinkering, and vendors may not support the combination.
“Each vendor has an interoperability matrix that is pretty broad now,” says John Kelly, director of product marketing for AppIQ Inc., Burlington, Mass.-based maker of StorageAuthority storage-area network (SAN) and storage resource management software. But customers are still advised to confirm interoperability before they buy.
The Canadian Space Agency has a mixture of storage hardware in its three main locations in Montreal and Ottawa, says Robert Dominique, Unix and storage manager. It works, thanks partly to the agency’s insistence on standards in recent purchases, but it takes effort. “You have to make sure that all your versions and firmware and all that are aligned together,” Dominique says. “You have to keep up with what’s going on at the various levels of patches.”
Meanwhile, interoperability is becoming more important for many customers. “IT managers are dealing in heterogeneous storage infrastructures more and more every year,” says Ron Riffe, storage software strategist at IBM Corp. Some do so deliberately to keep their options open and vendors on their toes, while many have multi-vendor environments thrust upon them through mergers and acquisitions.

smi-s provides standard interface for products

Martin Skagen, product architect for the infrastructure group at Brocade Communications Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif., says the chances are good today that networked storage products will work together — but he warns that resellers won’t always support untested combinations. He says companies should rely on a single reseller to put together a dependable mix.
“If you buy it from one of our partners … they will already have done that for you,” Skagen says. “They will not sell you something that does not work.”
That’s something, but wouldn’t it be better if industry-wide standards ensured that everything worked with everything else? Such efforts do exist. The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) has created the Storage Management Initiative Specification, or SMI-S, to ensure that storage management tools can manage storage products from a variety of vendors.
Ray Dunn, a member of the SNIA’s board of directors and business development manager for the Storage Management Forum, explains that storage products come equipped with their own element managers, which may or not be compatible with a customer’s SAN management tools. SMI-S provides standard interfaces among various vendors’ products — “you want the management product to be able to make a single call to be able to perform a task,” Dunn says.
Some of the basic functions covered by the standard include determining how many disks a device has, creating a volume pool and creating a logical unit number (LUN), Dunn says.

major vendors supporting SMI-S

The first version of SMI-S was completed in 2003, and was formally ratified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) last year. More than 200 products have been tested and found compliant with the standard, Dunn says.
SMI-S Version 1.1 adds support for network-attached storage and iSCSI, disk partitioning and other capabilities. It is still awaiting formal ratification, but compliance testing of products that conform to SMI-S 1.1 should begin this fall, Dunn says.
Major storage hardware and software vendors are already supporting SMI-S quite widely. “I would say that the industry is really behind this,” Dunn says.
The SNIA has set up a certification program for vendors to have their products tested for compliance. Dunn notes that the service includes secret testing of unannounced products, so that manufacturers can trumpet their new offerings as SMI-S certified on the day of launch. Customers can find certified products listed on the association’s Web site at www.snia.org/ctp.
As the Canadian Space Agency’s storage environment evolved, Dominique says, the agency began specifying SMI-S in requests for proposal. That has given the agency common management of its assortment of storage technology, which includes Brocade switches, an Advanced Digital Information Corp. (ADIC) tape library and EMC and Hewlett-Packard Co. storage systems, working with both Unix and Windows servers. “We wanted to have only the one system,” Dominique says, “not two or three.” The standard has lived up to its promise, he says, even allowing components not specifically certified by vendors as interoperable to work together successfully.
Riffe says IBM sees SMI-S as one prong of a two-prong strategy to address interoperability, with the other being storage virtualization. IBM was among the first vendors to offer certified SMI-S support on all its disk products, he says. IBM is not alone in supporting the standard, he notes. “Our view is that it’s coming along fairly rapidly, and it’s mostly driven by customer demand.”
Hewlett-Packard Co. works with thousands of partners to ensure interoperability among its products and theirs, and supports SMI-S across its storage product line, says Purag Suri, category business manager for the StorageWorks division of Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co. in Mississauga, Ont. “Things like SMI-S or interoperability should be almost a given,” Suri says, “like quality is a given.”
SMI-S is simplifying the vendors’ job of making sure their products work with those of other manufacturers. “There are things that we take for granted now that we didn’t five years ago,” says Skagen at Brocade. Kelly says AppIQ can now spend less time developing drivers for assorted devices.
But SMI-S does not solve all the interoperability problems. Its goal, Dunn says, is to ensure disparate devices can be managed together. “Our goal at this point is not that those two devices can talk to each other perfectly.”
Like SMI-S, storage virtualization aims to hide differences among storage devices with a layer of abstraction. Virtualization lets servers talk to storage systems in a common language rather than being concerned with the interfaces of many different devices. “The idea of both (SMI-S and virtualization) is creating a virtualized view of a physical resource,” Riffe says. “The idea is to take all of these unique, proprietary vendor-specific interfaces … and abstract those so the application or server deals with a virtualized view.” Adds his colleague Duane Baldwin, of IBM’s Tivoli TTC architecture team, “they’re both providing the customer with the choice or the flexibility.”

emc touts ‘significant progress’ in interoperability

Most vendors, and even customers, will tell you making disparate storage products work together is easier today than it was. “Five years ago the world was pretty happy if you could plug things together and all the LEDs were green and there was no smoke or sparks,” Lloyd at EMC says. “Two years ago you could not literally plug switches from different vendors into the same fabric and have them work,” Dunn says. “We’ve made significant progress in a lot of areas.”
“It’s not a perfect world yet,” says Dominique. “The road maybe is not paved all the way, but at least the direction is obvious.”
That day will come, Riffe says. “I think the position we will get to is one very similar to TCP/IP networking.”
For those in the trenches, that day can’t come too soon. “I still feel sorry for users,” Duplessie says. “This stuff is so hard, and yet it doesn’t have to be. It won’t change until users tell their vendors to screw off because they aren’t interoperable or standards-based.”

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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