Make interoperability the goal

A new set of storage specs takes a timid first step toward compatible components -- but is not likely to go far enough

Getting storage vendors to play together nicely is no easy task. When they do, it is an event worthy of pause -- even if the gathering proves more about self-service than boosting the interoperability of their wares.

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The Storage Bridge Bay Working Group, a nonprofit created by storage vendors, this week announced an update to its set of specs for storage devices and components. The specs, SBB 2.0, attempt to standardize a wide array of storage parts, including the physical dimensions of controller canisters, bay constraints, and connectors, as well as controller power and cooling parameters and enclosure management functionality.

Unless you design storage arrays, the specs aren't lively reading. But for vendors, they are fast proving essential, if growth in SBB's popularity is a guide. In the 15 months since its first document, the group has grown its membership by 39 percent, says Mark Hall, chairman of the SBB marketing subgroup, with Sun Microsystems the most recent addition to the fold.

Although some big names are missing from SBB's ranks (for example, HP), the growth is all the more striking given that nonmembers are free to use the spec as well. They may be wise to do that, considering the specs are proving fruitful to those who employ them.

"At Xyratex, we have seen development time cut down by more than half," says Hall, who, in addition to his duties at SBB, holds a day job at Xyratex.

A fast injection of new technology also brings advantages to end-users creating products that are more affordable, more modular, and easier to repair.

Part of the power of the specs is the flexibility they bring to final products. For a good example, consider the Dell MD3000 line, which offers different host connectivity on what is essentially the same chassis.

But what is a bit too restrictive is that voting members are able to directly influence the specs, with an eye toward easing integration with their own products. Interoperability should instead be the goal of the group. Unfortunately, the specs clearly reject this objective:

"The SBB specification is not intended to provide a guideline for interoperability between SBB compliant controllers from different vendors," the SBB 2.0 document states.

Alas, interoperability remains, for the most part, incidental, dependent on backroom deals.

"If you buy an SBB chassis from Dell and one from Xyratex, this doesn't necessarily mean that the modules are going to be interchangeable," Hall explains. "Only if the two vendors have agreed to do that."

Ironically, SBB 2.0 does include new specs for canisters that promote interoperability across chassis and vendors. Could this be a tentative first step in the right direction?

Perhaps, but the day we'll be able to swap components among storage arrays as easily as we plug a radio into different car models is still far off -- if it ever comes.

What customers really need from groups such as the SBB is a movement toward component compatibility. Although these specs won't make future devices vendor-agnostic, compared with the original set, they will favor injecting new technologies, creating incentive to move away from dated, less efficient products.

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