Industry Associations - Worthwhile or Worthless?

Tuesday Aug 13th 2002 by Leslie Wood

Nowadays, not being affiliated with an industry association can make you feel like the odd one out. But, just what does membership of these organizations offer, and what are they doing to help the storage industry move forward?

Like any other industry, the storage industry has its fair share of associations. And, as with other industries, these associations were created to promote, educate, and expand the quality of the industry. However, while many storage professionals feel that these associations have helped shape the industry, others feel that there is little (if any) value in participating in them because they are merely acting as 'mouthpieces' for their members.

The one issue that most storage professionals and industry associations would most likely agree on is that the biggest issue presently facing the industry is the lack of good storage management standards, and the lack of willingness by all vendors to cooperate. In other words, promoting an open management platform so that all components, regardless, of vendor, can be managed from a single point. On this issue, as with practically any other in the storage industry, there are conflicting opinions as to whether industry associations are doing enough to create technology standards and bring dissenting parties together. There are, though, and increasing number of examples where industry associations are making the difference.

For example, Wayne Adams of EMC feels that the Fibre Alliance Association did step up to the plate in shaping the storage industry when it created technology specifications that enabled heterogeneous SAN management. "The end result of the FA MIB specification," says Adams, "is that all SAN management tools use the FA MIB to perform basic discovery and monitoring of SAN devices. Even though the Fibre Alliance has been dormant since releasing V4.0 of the FA MIB specification, it is relevant today and available in most, if not all, SAN switches, managed SAN hubs, managed SAN bridges/routers, and SAN Management SW products."

Opinions do differ, though. Steven Toole of Precise does not see the value in joining these associations. "As far as (storage associations) shaping the industry, I haven't seen it. Our customers needs are what shapes the industry and we are committed to developing the most effective storage resource management solutions to address those needs, not what some association sub-committee dreams up," he says.

Toole's opinion is not shared by Don Mead of FalconStor who is active in both the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) and the Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA). He says that the SNIA is not only promoting standardization within the industry, but by conducting interoperability testing it is allowing various members to work together to come up with solutions and test compatibility between products. "Being a member of an industry associations has enabled FalconStor to work with many companies of today's iSCSI Initiator products (i.e. HBA's) and iSCSI Target Store Devices)," says Mead. With that said, Mead did admit that there is a lot of marketing going on in these associations and says that some of the main reasons he joins them is for networking, relationship building, and market exposure.

In many cases though, industry associations are grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns. In May of this year, the SNIA announced the development of a draft specification that applied CIM/WBEM object technology to create the basis of a complete management solution for interoperable, multi-vendor SANs. "Managing the complexity of SANs has become a key user issue, a problem that is compounded by the multi-vendor environment which most users have," says John Webster of the Data Mobility Group. "Without comprehensive standards for management and testing for interoperability, users will be forced to pay artificially high prices for solutions and as a result, will find it more difficult to achieve the promised value of storage networking," he continued.

This specification, code named 'Bluefin', employs technology from the Web Based Enterprise (WBEM) initiative that uses the Managed Object Format (MOF) to describe system resources based on a Common Information Model (CIM). In addition, according to Robin Glasgow, executive director of SNIA, Bluefin introduces new technology for security, locking, and discovery for SAN management. Glasgow says the specification is slated to become public this month to SNIA members. "Although true interoperability has not yet been accomplished in the storage industry, says Glasgow, it is not that far away."

On the surface, it does seem that the Blufin specification will become an important milestone in the storage industry as some of the industry's deadliest competitors (EMC, IBM, Brocade, Veritas, Sun, HP, Hitachi, Dell, Emulex, StorageTek, and Qlogic) participated in its development. And, at the very least, the Bluefin specification may finally prove that even deadly storage industry competitors can learn to play together nicely.

For some, industry associations are more about what they can provide rather than what they do. Martyn Joyce of Fujitsu Softek says industry associations help create a collegiate atmosphere for storage industry professionals to jointly move forward. According to Joyce there are two types of people who join industry associations: those who do all the work and those who watch them do the work. The downside to associations, according to Joyce, is that most of the people who chair these associations are from the biggest companies, since these companies have the resources and time to dedicate to these efforts, and have more of a vested interest in the way standards are evolving into the future. Joyce is in a strong position to comment - he is an active member of both SNIA and FCIA.

Dianne McAdam, an analyst with Illuminata, feels that these industry associations give a tremendous boost to vendors and end users alike. "Associations like SNIA are shaping the industry as I see them putting the issue of standards ahead of their individual members," she says. "I for one am very upbeat about these associations as I believe that they are a great asset to the storage industry as a whole," she continued.

Bob Passmore, a storage industry analyst with Gartner, says that historically industry associations were nothing more than a promotions group. However, he feels that SNIA has gone beyond that role. "It's valuable for a forum, such as the SNIA, to assert themselves this way (developing standards) as it provides the necessary education for the end user community," he says. Passmore also sees SNIA's Interoperability Lab in Colorado Springs, CO as an excellent vehicle to test and resolve some of the major issues surrounding the storage industry. "The lab has most of the large pieces of equipment so end users can see how all of these components work together," he concluded.

As storage industry professionals continue to come together to create non-proprietary cross-vendor standards to ensure interoperability between their various storage area network products, both end users and vendors alike will reap the benefits. It seems that many of the industry associations are assisting their members to work toward this goal and in some cases may be able to make the difference between success and failure.

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