Remaining Relevant

That's SNIA's biggest challenge, and the group hardly looks up to the task.

April 11, 2006

13 Min Read
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Plastic surgery is an interesting phenomenon, in many ways a follow-on to the psycho-babble and self-help craze, and a major source of tax income to those places in the world, like Irvine, Calif., where plastic surgery has become the largest component of the local economy. Despite the huge revenues it generates, one medical report recently questioned the practice of nip and tuck as a possible contributor to the decline of the human gene pool.

Think about it. Nature (helped along by pop media) makes us respond to, or be stimulated by, certain physical traits in others as a means to help perpetuate the species. As a result, a man or woman who is less than a "perfect 10" in the looks department might not have as many reproductive opportunities as, say, a supermodel or rock star.

By this logic, natural selection culls out certain physical characteristics over many generations. Some scientists argue, however, that by surgically altering those physical attributes of attraction, we are perpetuating exactly the genes that nature is trying to weed out. Increasingly unattractive offspring are the inevitable consequence of the mating of less-than-attractive-though-surgically-altered individuals.

Following this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, the whole world is ultimately doomed to be populated by unattractive folk who have no incentive to perpetuate the species. It's an interesting theory. For all we know, it might explain what really killed off the dinosaurs.

Which brings me to the fact that the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) is out to "reinvent" itself. It has convened a Board Advisory Committee (BAC) to create some sort of strategy to help curb the decline of the organization into oblivion, irrelevance, and bankruptcy. I sense the plastic surgeons sharpening their scalpels in anticipation.From the conversations I have had over the past year with many marketing droids representing the largest members of the vendor group, questions are becoming more pronounced regarding the value of their continued funding of the organization. As near as anyone can tell, there is no "branding value" from the investment. Most customers don't much care whether a vendor is an SNIA member. Many consumers don't even know what the association is.

The organization hasn't exactly helped itself much here. It has redefined itself over the last few years as an industry association, a standards group, an educational forum, and a consumer organization. Those who have followed these morphings and tweenings find themselves wondering whether the SNIA guys are trying to sell a dessert topping or a floor wax.

Smaller vendors have been compelled to join SNIA in order to sell their wares to larger SNIA-ites. Whether this has actually helped them succeed with their channel sales is a matter of considerable debate. In general, the smaller SNIA members tend to think of themselves as the General Assembly of some sort of warped United Nations of storage: They vote a lot, but nobody really pays any attention. The Security Council, comprised of the three-letter muckety-muck vendors, actually runs the show.

The only guys who seem to be getting rich from SNIA are the forum directors, who are tasked to chair certain "co-opetitive" (cooperation among competitors) development efforts, but whose actual time is spent recruiting new vendors to join their forums and SNIA itself. The reason for this is simple: I am told that the forum chair receives additional payola for each vendor they can get to join their forums. As a result, only a fraction of their time is spent on any productive work, if what they do can properly be termed productive at all.

Apparently, the blush is off the rose. Vendors are dropping off SNIAs member rolls or acting in a decidedly un-SNIA fashion – forming external coalitions and initiatives outside of the SNIA umbrella that rival the work being done inside the organization. Smaller vendors are slower to join the party. Despite its many makeovers, being part of SNIA is no longer perceived as making you more attractive on date night, if it ever did.Even on the technical front, high profile efforts like Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S) have lost their luster. Storage techs working behind closed doors have done their darndest to deliver a storage management paradigm that could work across heterogeneous infrastructure. Along the way, however, they forgot to ask Microsoft what it thought about the Java-esque foundation they were using (big mistake, that). Plus, they have been forced to dumb down the whole effort of uniform cross-platform management to avoid goring the sacred cows of the big iron vendors.

The result: Their SMI "providers" deliver less monitoring and management capability than the native APIs and element management utilities that already exist on vendor gear.

SMI-S is a washout. Despite the occasional hype, there is virtually no demand for it in the user community. Smaller vendors are finding providers too costly to implement their gear, especially when customers aren't willing to pay extra for them. And, of course, Microsoft has been noticeably absent from the SMI-S party, which casts further doubt upon prospects for adoption.

Late last year, some vendors broke ranks and formed their own quasi open-source initiative, Aperi, to work the same issues as the SMI-S crowd at SNIA. That development scared the daylights out of the SNIA board because it was interpreted by the media as an indication of SNIA's failure to maintain party discipline and as a demonstration of the willingness of key members, including IBM, to go another way.

Then, just when they were wrangling the rebel Aperi-ites back into the fold -- cajoling them into nesting under the SNIA shade tree -- a second open initiative,, was launched by the Data Management Institute. (Disclaimer: DMI is where I hang my hat when I’m not opining here.) That effort didn’t seek out vendor cooperation at all, but instead leveraged a couple hundred hair-on-fire storage consumers who felt that SNIA was out of touch with their needs, if not with reality generally.A consumer revolt was exactly what SNIA didn't need on the heels of that annoying and embarrassing Aperi thing. To be sure, the industry association has never successfully engaged the support of the user community, but to have them actively militating against SNIA initiatives was not part of any scenario they had gamed.

Historically, storage consumers have always been passive, leaving the industry to work its magic behind closed doors. So long as the storage geeks delivered increasing capacity at a decreasing price per Gbyte, everything was shiny. However, massive data growth, combined with regulatory requirements for better data management, a slow down in disk areal density improvement, and increasing array prices created by "value-add" software that didn't add any real value, all contributed to a new and less friendly consumer view of the industry. With storage becoming a huge cost center, accounting for a third or more of IT spending in many shops, patience with the machinations of a self-serving industry and its key spokesperson began to wear thin.

That brings us to the present and the BAC. SNIA is calling in the plastic surgeons to remake the group into something it really isn't -- an effective, relevant, and attractive potential partner for consumers and vendors alike.

I doubt that Paul Borrill would completely agree with that characterization of the organization he helped found in the late 1990s. The SNIA board has brought him back to chair the BAC to help reinvent SNIA. And in our conversation at SNW last week, he struck me as the same likeable, if overly idealistic, fellow that he was in SNIA's early days.

When he invited me to meet with him at the show to discuss what I thought SNIA must do to transform itself, I was flabbergasted. I sent the email to a few cronies, initially believing that it was a prank. It wasn't.In Borrill's defense, he said that he hadn't read all of my columns or blogs (which would have given him a better view of my profoundly negative opinion of SNIA), but he said I might be surprised by the commonality of viewpoints between myself and many members of the BAC. I was intrigued by the offer.

I thought long and hard about what input I would provide, certain that whatever I said would ultimately fall on deaf ears anyway. My jocular self wanted to suggest that the best thing to do with SNIA would be to put it out of its misery. If he wanted more constructive input, I would suggest that he should pull the trigger twice. Just to be sure.

Then I thought about what an effective industry association might be able to do. Here are the key recommendations I made during our meeting.

First, SNIA should look hard at Joe Marion's Association of Service and Computer Dealers International (ASCDI), an organization for technical service and support providers and resellers of used gear. ASCDI, I noted, had a code of ethics to which all member companies must subscribe to join the organization.

ASCDI's code of ethics outlined for its members those business practices were permissible and which were unacceptable in terms of their dealings with their customers and each other. The fact that the number of vendors comprising ASCDI was quite small, much like the storage industry itself, helped to ensure that such a code could be policed in a manageable way. In such a small group, vendors rat each other out when someone violates the code.The ASCDI code is backed by a formal review process. A vendor can report the improper behavior of a peer to the ASCDI for review. If a violation of the code was discovered, the offender is warned; continued misbehavior draws a sanction and ultimately a blacklisting for dirty dealings. Consumers can contact ASCDI to check out a vendor before they use his services or buy his products.

If SNIA adopted a similar role in the storage industry, and policed its membership to preclude practices like placing gag orders on customers regarding the public sharing of their performance test data about products, or restricting on the transferability of software licenses on storage gear, or any of a host of other idiotic practices we see in every day in this business, then the organization might just begin to become something more than a logo on a shirt or gym bag. Moreover, it might actually begin to mean something to consumers, which in turn would give it some value to member companies, compelling them to join.

I would suggest that such a code also be extended to storage vendor business practices. It should prohibit the bribing of consumers (with golf outings or other irrelevant incentives) in order to get the sale, reform and standardize practices for responding to RFIs and RFPs to ensure bid fairness, and it should take a stern position against channel stuffing by OEMs that forces channel partners to deliver components to legitimate imaginary equipment orders booked to create phony earnings reports for Wall Street -- only to have to re-stock them six months later. That's just for a start.

Want even more traction with users? Try providing them with stuff they can actually use. I reminded Borrill about the Enhanced Backup Solutions Initiative, an effort started a few years ago by Quantum, Network Appliance, pre-EMC Legato, Avamar, and a few other vendors. Their goal was simple: to vet some of the dizzying array of data protection options by cobbling together various combinations of vendor wares in order to demonstrate their interoperability and price/performance. Users were clamoring for this information when EBSI started, which led SNIA to kill the initiative by stealing its funding and ingesting its carcass. Since that time, SNIA has done absolutely nada to articulate various "reference models" (software/hardware combinations that actually worked) that could help consumers solve nagging problems.

Giving these practical and tested reference models to the world might actually make folks visit SNW Online, a so-called information portal from SNIA that gets fewer visitors than my 86-year-old mother's personal blog. It might also encourage vendors to work and play together better.But SNIA needed a lot more than a simple rhinoplasty, breast augmentation, or tummy tuck, I suggested to Borrill. Its entire infrastructure would need to be ripped and replaced.

Making the organization truly democratic, rather than oligarchic, might be a start. "One vendor, one vote" might force some changes that give greater presence to the more innovative technologies championed by smaller vendors. Heck, it might even give relevance to the SNIA name, which includes the words "storage networking," today, an oxymoronic reference to non-networked storage technologies like Fibre Channel fabrics (which is based on a channel, not a network, protocol) and NAS (which is actually direct-attached storage any way you slice it).

Alternatively, and this will get me flamed by many of my friends, SNIA might be well served to re-make itself into a benign dictatorship run by Microsoft, and maybe Oracle, and the more prominent UNIX and Linux operating system vendors. Let's face it: At the end of the day, the OS geeks, not the storage geeks, run the show. Information lifecycle management (ILM), for example, requires buy-in from the OS and application software folks. It cannot be developed by a bunch of self-serving storage vendors who would inevitably use a "standardized data classification scheme" as a thinly-veiled mechanism to drive a slice of the consumer data pie to each of their respective platforms.

The reason why the only real ILM we have ever seen was in IBM mainframe environments is because it was delivered by the vendor of the mainframe operating system itself. Given Microsoft's share of the server world, and its stated intention to restrict code not approved by Microsoft from playing in the emerging Vista platform, it's a no-brainer to me that the storage guys are chasing themselves if they are developing stuff that Microsoft has given no indication that it will sanction.

Regardless of who runs the new SNIA, they need to take a clue from the latest challenges to its hegemony as a self-styled broker of storage standards. If the enthusiasm for Aperi and StorageRevolution proves anything, it is that consumers (and a lot of vendors) would prefer that development around storage management and data management be conducted in the open, within view of everyone. All the new SNIA's development work must be done that way, and not behind closed doors. If the organization truly wants to be a standards group, they need to become more like the Internet Engineering Task Force. Set up a reflector so anyone who is interested can monitor activities via email and chime in with their comments or questions.Of course, doing so would also cast an unblinking gaze on the machinations of certain vendors who are endeavoring to hijack the standards-making processes to serve their own proprietary ends, as has happened at ANSI T-11 Committee, which has produced Fibre Channel standards that provide absolutely no guarantor of interoperability. As ANSI demonstrates, there are even standards groups that aren't so standard.

Paul seemed to like some of these ideas, but alas, the follow-up conversation that was to take place after his meeting with the BAC did not happen. I am told by a couple of insiders that my suggestions were largely dismissed as implausible.

So, I am back to my jocular recommendation. Plastic surgery won't fix SNIA. Cosmetic plastic surgery won't fix SNIA. What may well be required is another medical option: euthanasia. At least that one won't run the risk of ugly kids.

— Jon William Toigo, Contributing Editor, Byte and Switch

What do you think SNIA can do to make itself more useful? Write Jon William Toigo0

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