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Main storage network players fuss over standards

Behind-the-scenes maneuverings are making the ordinarily dry subject of storage area networks a little juicier, as EMC and IBM jockey for advantage in the alliances supporting the growing market.

Behind-the-scenes maneuverings are making the ordinarily dry subject of storage area networks a little juicier, as EMC and IBM jockey for advantage in the industry alliances supporting the growing market.

EMC has withdrawn from one group dominated by its competitors, while IBM has withdrawn from another founded by EMC. Such wrangling highlights the difficulty of setting standards among several companies, each advocating choices geared to their own strengths.

A storage area network (SAN) is a method large organizations use to centralize data storage instead of employing a multitude of separate storage systems associated with all its servers. SANs, however, have been hampered by a lack of standards for fibre channel, the technology used to connect all the devices on a SAN.

As a result, a variety of industry alliances have sprung up to ensure that different devices can talk to each other. The standard-setting efforts are critical if SANs are to emerge as a mainstream technology instead of just an expensive collection of hardware customized for each installation.

For now, though, it appears industry cooperation isn't so easy to muster. Meanwhile, EMC, the top dog in the market for high-end storage systems, can better afford to wait for standards to arrive, analysts say.

EMC, a leader in SAN technology and the high-end storage market, set up its own group to try to make it easier for administrators to manage routers, switches, storage devices and other SAN equipment. But last week, IBM's NUMA-Q group withdrew from that group, called the FibreAlliance.

"We feel that the FibreAlliance has resulted in an EMC-centric solution set and not a vendor-agnostic initiative," IBM marketing manager Glenn Sullivan said in Big Blue's withdrawal letter last week. "Unfortunately, the FibreAlliance never achieved its goal of gaining industry-wide support in addressing the issues of interoperability and open standards for SANs."

Not surprisingly, EMC has a different view of affairs. IBM's withdrawal was based on "a rash of misunderstandings of the charter and the accomplishments of the alliance," said EMC spokesman Dave Farmer.

Farmer disputed accusations that EMC isn't interested in open standards, arguing that it was EMC, frustrated with the sluggish pace of standardization, that had to get things moving by founding the FibreAlliance. "If we weren't interested in the standards process, we wouldn't have created this industry consortium," he said.

IBM's Sullivan acknowledged the FibreAlliance did, in fact, force the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) "to put its afterburners on and catch up," but now IBM would prefer to work with SNIA and another industry group, the Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA).

In March, EMC withdrew from the Storage Performance Council, an organization creating a benchmark to measure the performance of storage systems.

"The decision is based on a belief that the benchmark currently under construction does not reflect the environment in which we compete, nor does it contain criteria that can show any of the unique features of the products we produce," Bill Zahavi of EMC's performance engineering group said in EMC's withdrawal letter.

EMC's Farmer said the benchmark measured only how fast data was transferred into and out of a storage system and didn't reflect other advantages, such as features enabled by EMC's software.

EMC's displeasure was "based on the fact that the SPC benchmark under consideration was focused entirely on the back-end performance," Farmer said. "It has very little relevance to the systems' performance."

Evidently, not everyone agrees. Other members of Storage Performance Council include all of EMC's strongest competitors for storage systems: Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, Sun Microsystems and Hitachi Data Systems.