SMI-S successor to Bluefin on fast track

In conference rooms and product laboratories around the world, a volunteer army is struggling to do what has never been done before: Get vendors to agree on a vital common technology specification without the help of a traditional standards body.

The specification is the Storage Management Interface Specification (SMI-S), a set of common models and protocols that will allow storage management tools to communicate with and manage storage devices from any manufacturer. For customers, this will mean lower management costs and fewer headaches because a single software console will allow them to manage more storage devices.

It's good news for vendors, too, because once their products are SMI-S compliant, they won't have to negotiate and implement expensive technology swaps to ensure compatibility with products from their competitors.

This spring, the Storage Networking Industry Association published Version 1.0 of SMI-S, opening the door to public comment and testing of the interfaces described by the specification, and the products that aim to comply with it. Major vendors have announced (or are shipping) SMI-S compliant products, while hardware and software developers are being trained in the 350-page specification.

Rapid progress

Some customers could begin using some of the SMI-S interfaces as early as this year, says John Webster, senior analyst and founder of the Data Mobility Group in Nashua, N.H. He says the SNIA's Storage Management Initiative (SMI), which is managing development of the specification, has "made far more rapid progress in the last nine months or so than they have in the three years previous."

"It's been a long three or four years to get to this point," says SMI chairman Roger Reich. "We have some back-breaking work for the next 18 months." That includes testing the interfaces defined by SMI-S to ensure they reliably connect any SMI-S-compliant products. "That's where the rubber meets the road," he says.

SMI-S (formerly known as "Bluefin") consists of a protocol and an API designed to make it easier to manage - from a single storage management application - storage hardware such as disk arrays made by different vendors. It does this by using an object model based on Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) technology and the Common Information Model (CIM) to create common descriptions of storage devices (such as disk arrays) and of events (such as creating and naming a volume).

"Version 1.0 of the SMI-S delivers the core architecture for SAN management," says Ray Dunn, marketing chair for the SNIA's Storage Management Forum. This includes the interfaces and protocols for communicating among storage arrays, the storage fabric and storage switches and storage management applications. Among the functions enabled by Version 1.0 are identifying key resources in a SAN and the health of those resources, identifying the zones being enforced in a SAN and adding, deleting or modifying storage volumes in a SAN.

Work has already begun on SMI-S Version 1.1, which will extend support to both NAS and storage over IP (Internet Protocol), says Dunn. Version 1.1 will also include additional locking and security features, some capabilities for policy-based automation of management functions and support for tape libraries.

Testing and training

In March, the SNIA announced the Interoperability Conformance Testing Program aimed at creating test specifications and a specific testing regime (expected in mid-July) to determine if products indeed comply with the SMI-S 1.0 specification. Products that are fully compliant with the specification and certified to that effect should be in customers' hands by the end of the year, says Webster. The SNIA's goal is to have 60% of all new products compliant with the specification by 2004 and 100% by 2005.

Developing hardware and software that meets the SMI-S specification requires training. The first one-week class, which was meant to handle 25 students, was expanded to 27, but that still left 10 would-be students on the waiting list, says Dunn. A second class scheduled for mid-June was starting to fill up as well. One challenge the SNIA is facing, he says, is to find training methods that are less expensive than sending developers to the SNIA Technology Center in Colorado Springs.

One of the reasons for optimism about SMI-S is that with the downturn in technology spending, major vendors simply cannot afford to exchange APIs with every vendor whose products they want to support due to the need to laboriously write links to those products.

Pressure from customers to reduce their storage management costs is also driving the specification, says Jim Davis, chief technology officer of WBEM Solutions Inc., a Pinehurst, N.C., software development tool firm specializing in the CIM/WBEM market. According to Davis, "Within three years, it will be a requirement from IT shops that vendors be SMI-S compliant."

But that same weak market saps the strength of the volunteer force whose time is, for the most part, contributed by storage vendors that must keep paying their regular salaries while they are doing work for the overall good of the storage industry.

"The computer industry is now so lean, and the margins are so thin, that there just isn't a body of architects inside these companies to go work on a major new standard at the drop of a hat," says Reich. "If we don't execute well, this could fall into the annals of history behind some of those other standards that didn't make it. The storage industry, the vendors and the customers have clearly seen the value proposition. Now, it's a question of execution and marshalling the resources to see the job through."

Dunn says some of the major players in the storage world, which otherwise "are competing for every deal out there" are working side by side in the SNIA labs to make the SMI-S specification a reality. "There is a different kind of energy and excitement than in any other standards development effort anybody has seen before in the technology area," he says. "We're in sort of a revolutionary position to have a really profound impact on the future of storage management."

A sample of vendor support for SMI-S

Computer Associates is already shipping BrightStor SAN Manager Rev. 1.0, which complies with the pre-release version of the SMI-S 1.0 specification.

HP's first software test suite was accepted by the SNIA for assessing cross-platform SMI-S conformance. It is now shipping pre-release 1.0 SMI-S interfaces with the HP StorageWorks XP and Virtual Array product families. The company promises to make all hardware and software SMI-S compliant.

Hitachi Data Systems expects to ship an SMI-S-compliant version of its HiCommand storage management software this summer.

EMC promises to make all its hardware and software SMI-compliant, with first products appearing this year. The company will also release SMI-enabled software developer kits for its WideSky storage management framework.

IBM has announced that its TotalStorage Enterprise Storage Server is already SMI-S compliant, as will be products to be shipped later this year as part of its TotalStorage Virtualization strategy.

Veritas is leading an effort to create a host-based volume management model for SMI-S Version 1.1.

Robert L. Scheier writes frequently about storage from Boylston, Mass. He can be reached at rscheier@charter.net.

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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