Interoperability demos don't prove anything

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We just wound down on a grueling spring show season. It started in March with the Brocade Conference, followed by Storage Management, Storage Networking World, EMC Technology Forum, Veritas Vision, Storage World Conference, IDC Storage Forum and, earlier this month, Gartner's PlanetStorage (which took place on another planet—Las Vegas).

One thing I find strange about some of the shows is the interoperability demonstrations, where dozens of vendors allegedly cooperate to get all their hardware and software to work together. The irony is that this calls attention to one of the storage industry's biggest problems: Things don't always interoperate, at least not in the real world.

I applaud the engineers who put these demos together, working slavishly on the weekend before the show, but I question the message the vendors are sending to users. It's sort of like the emperor going to his coronation, naked, and talking about how cool his clothes are.

Most end users who take the time to go to storage-specific shows and conferences are pretty sophisticated, and they know that interoperability is a bugaboo in the storage industry. If you don't believe me, look at any end-user survey.

For example, a survey of 192 IT managers and executives, conducted by TheInfoPro, asked the following question: What are the top two capabilities that you need your storage vendors to deliver over the next 12 to 18 months? The number-one response was "Need improved management tools," and the number-two response (35% of the respondents) was "Better interoperability." (For more information about TheInfoPro survey, see the cover story in this issue.)

Users aren't stupid: They know that interoperability is a problem, at least in storage area network (SAN) environments. And a canned demo at a trade show isn't going to convince them otherwise.

In the real world, firmware upgrades cause problems, replacing equipment and software causes problems, and human error causes problems—not to mention the fact that some vendors (most notably the market share leaders) aren't really interested in seamless interoperability, anyway. Think about it: If you had a 70% market share, would you make it easy for your customers to plop in a competitor's box, or software, and have everything interoperate?

Ah, you say, but upcoming standards will change all that. No they won't, not any more than the Fibre Channel or iSCSI standards guarantee interoperability. Storage management standards, for example, will provide a baseline for potential software interoperability (or at least the ability for software to better manage heterogeneous SANs), but they won't solve the overall problem (which has a lot to do with product differentiation and, again, vendors protecting their installed bases).

The SAN vendor community has made great strides toward interoperability since the early days, but the emperor won't be wearing Armani anytime soon.

Dave Simpson,

This article was originally published on June 01, 2003