Users, vendors face SMI-S hurdles

One issue is how vendors will distribute their SMI-S interfaces.

By Sonia R. Lelii

More and more end users are asking vendors if their products support the new and evolving SMI-S storage management standard—a sign that in 2005 SMI-S may play a stronger role in users' storage spending decisions.

But some vendors say that instead of inquiring about which products support SMI-S, users should ask vendors how they intend to distribute and package their SMI-S interfaces because that may play a major role in how practical the standard becomes.

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One issue is that some hardware vendors plan to distribute their SMI-S "provider"—which serves as a translator between hardware and software—through their own software management packages rather than distributing the interface with their hardware devices. That means in order for customers to manage a heterogeneous environment, they will have to purchase each vendor's proprietary software to get access to each vendor's SMI-S interface and, ultimately, get the full benefit of the management standard.

"With packaging, the question is whether hardware vendors see interfaces like SMI-S as a component of the device management software or as a component of their firmware," says Doug Cahill, vice president of business development at AppIQ, "and the vendors are not consistent on this issue, although most of them are doing it as part of their device management software."

Scott Hansbury, senior vice president of marketing at CreekPath Systems, says the situation is particularly frustrating for ISVs because the vendors are giving ISVs access to the SMI-S providers, but the caveat is that the hardware vendors are not giving ISVs the right to distribute the SMI-S interfaces to customers.

"You have to buy [the vendor's software]," says Hansbury. "This hamstrings customers if [a vendor] gives me the interface but then does not give me the license to ship it. The way vendors package and distribute SMI-S can make it or kill it."

But storage hardware vendors—in particular EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Data Systems, and IBM—are facing a conundrum when it comes to how they distribute their SMI-S interfaces. On one hand, they are pledging their allegiance to open standards. At the same time, storage hardware is becoming more of a commodity and vendors are depending more on software to differentiate their products and grow their businesses.

"It's not in the vendors' best interest to take all the pieces of their management features and have those adopted across vendors in a ratified standard," says Brian Lora, vice president of solutions integration at Arsenal Digital Solutions, a storage management services provider. "Vendors would lose revenue from software, which is the most profitable part of their business."

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As vendors work to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, a philosophical discussion around open standards becomes political. Industry experts say the ability to differentiate will influence how vendors package and distribute their SMI-S providers to both ISVs and end-user customers.

For example, IBM has chosen to distribute its SMI-S provider as part of its hardware, according to Clodoaldo Barrera, director of storage strategy for IBM's systems and technology group.

At the same time, CreekPath's Hansbury notes that EMC, Hewlett-Packard, and Hitachi Data Systems are bundling their SMI-S interfaces with their software. EMC's Web site states it does not charge for the SMI-S provider, but there's a software pre-requisite to access the interface. Hansbury says that means if customers wants to do active management on EMC's CLARiiON arrays, for instance, they will have to purchase EMC's Navisphere management software.

"The question is, how does the industry deliver [the SMI-S interface] so it fulfills the promise? That is something no one seems to be talking about. The standard is not a standard when it's not openly available for free," says Hansbury.

Some users agree with Hansbury. "You have to buy all those [vendors' software applications] just to get the SMI-S compliance. What good is that? So SMI-S comes with a price," says Gary Pilafas, manager of enterprise architectures at United Airlines.

"There are different ways of delivery," says one user who requested anonymity, "but customers are not going to influence that. They are going to influence features and pricing. Over time, access to the spec will be broadened. It took a number of years for the IP spec to evolve. SMI-S will be the same way."

Roger Reich, senior technical director at Veritas Software and chair of the SNIA Storage Management Initiative, says vendors are not breaking any rules if they choose to distribute the SMI-S interface through their software. The specification gives vendors several choices, according to Reich: They can embed the provider in their hardware, ship it in an appliance that sits in the SAN and serves as a software proxy or bridge, or integrate the provider with an existing host Common Information Model Object Manager (CIMOM).

"The specification clearly spells out all of these options," says Reich. "My expectation is that as time progresses vendors will embed the providers into hardware."

In the meantime, Reich says customers do have a way to influence how vendors distribute SMI-S providers. When putting out RFPs, customers can specify that they will give preference to, say, vendors that have embedded the SMI-S provider in their hardware. "As an ISV, I want them to embed it. Until they embed it into their hardware, to get to the provider you have to go to the vendor," says Reich.

Some ISVs point to IBM's model—which makes the SMI-S providers part of a device's firmware—as the best approach to delivering the interfaces because it's the method that is the easiest on customers. But since some of the hardware vendors are taking an alternative approach, where the SMI-S providers are made available through their own device manager software, customers then should ask vendors some targeted questions, according to AppIQ's Cahill.

First and foremost, says Cahill, has the SMI-S interface been implemented and distributed as embedded firmware or as a proxy-based software component? It may not be managed "right out of the box" if the interface is distributed via proxy. If the interface is implemented through the device manager software, do customers have an entitlement to the interface via their maintenance contract? If so, is the interface shipped though an upgrade or update? Customers typically are not charged for updates but can be charged for an upgrade.

Cahill says some of the hardware vendors already have a large installed base of customers who use their device manager software; therefore, it may be an easier road for customers to access the SMI-S providers. "Baseline providers should be available at no charge, although vendors can charge for their extensions." (See "SMI-S extensions add value," below.)

Reich says it will take years of work to make the SMI-S standard richer and deeper. Even now, 300 to 400 pages of new material are being added to the standard specification. The goal is to approve a new version each year (typically in April).

Current versions of the SMI-S specification that have been ratified include reporting and management capabilities such as creating zones, as well as LUN masking and mapping. Although some observers say that the reporting capabilities are "plain-vanilla" features that aren't likely to cause much contention among vendors, the active management features are more likely to prompt tough debates.

"[Active management] is the area that is going to be a hurdle for vendors to play nice," says Arsenal Digital's Lora. "They are being asked by the standards body to take their intellectual property and make it public domain. It's going to be interesting to watch because the business angle is going to limit cooperation."

What some observers anticipate will happen is that the standard will become richer and that the issue surrounding how SMI-S providers are distributed will be resolved over time.

So when will end users be able to take advantage of SMI-S to manage heterogeneous environments? "Theoretically, you can use SMI-S today," says Karen Dutch, general manager of the open systems group at Softek, "but today SMI-S is limited primarily to basic discovery. Configuration and high-level management isn't available yet."

Software vendors such as Softek can manage hardware devices either through SMI-S or via hardware vendors' APIs, although the SMI-S route is by far the more preferable approach. "SMI-S allows us to more easily support hardware devices and focus on value-added functionality as opposed to having to keep up with proprietary APIs," Dutch explains.

Another issue is that the SNIA's SMI-S conformance test currently applies only to hardware devices. A client (software) conformance test is expected in 2005.

"The hardware vendors are shipping products with SMI-S interfaces, and the next step is to have clients [software] that take advantage of the hardware providers," says AppIQ's Cahill. "Mid-2005 is a reasonable guess for when users can take advantage of SMI-S in a real way."

Sonia R. Lelii is a freelance writer based in Framingham, MA.

The following vendors have completed testing and conform to elements of the Storage Networking Industry Association's Conformance Testing Program (SNIA-CTP):
Brocade Hitachi Ltd.
Cisco IBM
CNT McData
Dell Network Appliance
EMC QLogic
Emulex Silicon Graphics
Engenio StorageTek
Hewlett-Packard Sun
Hitachi Data Systems
Source: SNIA

SMI-S extensions add value

By Sonia R. Lelii
The tricky topic of how vendors can maintain a competitive advantage while, at the same time, deliver products that adhere to a standard is not a new dilemma. It's the same issue the networking world tackled when it developed the SNMP standard about 15 years ago.

So it's no wonder why designers of the SMI-S specification looked to the SNMP playbook for a way to address the problem. Doug Cahill, vice president of business development at AppIQ, says the SNMP designers included terminology in the specification to give vendors some leverage in protecting their intellectual property. In short, the SNMP specification was designed to be extensible so that vendors could add special features to the standard as extensions.

The storage industry is adopting the same model. The SMI-S specification includes baseline properties and extension properties, with the former addressing standard tasks and the latter addressing special features that vendors develop to be more competitive. When vendors develop proprietary functions, they can choose to incorporate them into the specification as extensions, thus giving them a way to expose differentiating technology while maintaining control over who has access to the proprietary features.

Clodoaldo Barrera, director of storage strategy for IBM's systems and technology group, says extensions ultimately give the industry a common way to introduce unique vendor features "so that you don't have to write the entire code stack every time you want to invoke a new function."

But Barrera also notes that "the chance of adding something to the standard depends on vendors' willingness to donate it and everyone else accepting it."

However, extensions are not just about giving vendors a way to control their intellectual property: They can also work in favor of customers since extensions can be added for valuable features and functions not included in the SMI-S spec.

"Over time, some extended properties will make their way into the spec and some will not. That is determined by the market," says AppIQ's Cahill. "SNMP has baseline MIBs [management information bases] and extended MIBs. It's exactly the same concept for SMI-S."

For example, baseline MIBs, such as discovering an Ethernet router, are standard in every networking product. But vendors control the distribution licenses around extended MIBs. "This is a widely accepted model in the networking world," says Cahill. "Baseline SNMP MIBs should be prevalent, at no charge. But extended properties are typically chargeable in some fashion."

The hope is that baseline functions and extensions can work in the SMI-S storage management standard the same way they work in networking. However, some vendors caution that the SNMP and SMI-S analogy is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.

For example, the SMI-S standard is more robust in some ways than SNMP. According to Brian Lora, vice president of solutions integration at Arsenal Digital Solutions, a storage management services provider, "SNMP is built more on alerts and reports rather than making active configuration changes. SNMP does not have a lot of active management."

SMI-S at a glance

The Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S) is being developed by the Storage Networking Industry Association's (SNIA) Storage Management Initiative (SMI) group. SMI-S is an interoperable management interface standard for multi-vendor storage networking products.

SNIA tests hardware and software products via its Conformance Test Programs. SNIA's Storage Management Forum manages marketing, education, and training.

SMI-S is based on the Web-Based Enterprise Management (WBEM) architecture and the Common Information Model (CIM), which were developed by the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF). According to SNIA, SMI-S provides four key features:

  • A common, interoperable and extensible management transport;
  • A unified object model that provides for the control of LUNs and zones in the context of a SAN;
  • An automated discovery system; and
  • A new approach to the application of CIM/WBEM technology.

For more information, visit www.snia.org.

This article was originally published on December 01, 2004