Imagine running the latest version of EMC Corp.'s Enterprise Control Center Open Edition to migrate data from a midrange Hewlett-Packard Co. StorageWorks array to an IBM Corp. Shark. Or being able to set up replication from a Web browser between a Hitachi Data Systems Corp. Lighting and an EMC Symmetrix. Sounds far-fetched and years away from reality. But the first open storage management standard that will make this possible - at least in theory - is just around the corner.

Version 1.0 of a common standard for managing storage-area networks (SAN), often called Bluefin but known officially as the Storage Management Interface Specification (SMIS), is due out by mid-June, the Storage Network Industry Association (SNIA) says. More than 200 storage vendors, including major players such as EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, HP, IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. are working on such standards under the SNIA's aegis. A host of storage users from around the country also participate in the SNIA.

SMIS embodies the Distributed Management Task Force's Web-Based Enterprise Management architecture, which provides the foundation for offering services over the Web, and draws from the Common Information Model, a schema that lets management software interoperate. In general, SMIS will provide a common management interface for all SAN components, including disk arrays, switches, host adapters and servers.

SMIS 1.0 will include must-have features, the SNIA says. These include common interoperable and extensible management transport; automated discovery, which means when SMIS 1.0-compliant products are plugged into a SAN they will automatically announce their presence and capabilities to network constituents; and resource locking, which will allow resource sharing among SMIS 1.0-compliant wares from multiple vendors.

Here today, but deployed tomorrow

Storage vendors such as EMC have promised to ship SMIS 1.0-compliant products by mid-year, and the SNIA reports that early demonstrations and testing are verifying compliance and interoperability. Still, many industry watchers express skepticism about how quickly open standards will manifest themselves in enterprise storage networks.

"Even though many of the major storage vendors will push [SMIS 1.0]-compliant products out by the end of this year, in actuality we won't see tangible user results until two or three years down the road," says Anders Logren, a senior analyst with Giga Information Group.

Many users, while acknowledging standards are needed, are uncertain about how realistic open storage management is for the near term. Concerns they voice relate to how SMIS 1.0-compliant products would work in their existing infrastructures, whether these products make others obsolete and the cost to implement open management standards.

Others are concerned that SNIA standards work is controlled more by vendor agendas and politics than technology imperatives. "Vendors should realize this is not about their own personal agendas. The ones who make the open standards initiative a painless transition will be ahead of the game," Logren says.

Dave Buchanan, a network manager for Galactic Marketing, in Arlington, Texas, expresses skepticism about the ability to implement standards-based products properly within existing storage infrastructures. A small company, Galactic stores 1.4 terabytes of data on EMC and Dell storage systems, plus another terabyte of data in a network-attached storage environment. Since 2001, Galactic's storage capacity has increased by 42 percent each year.

"We've spent countless hours getting our current infrastructure to work effectively. I just don't see how all these vendors are going to make everything work properly with existing products - to me, that's like going to watch a football game and not knowing anything about the players," Buchanan says.

Rick Bauer, CIO of The Hill School, a private high school in Pottstown, Pa., is far less apprehensive. "I know we're all moving toward speaking the same language. I feel SMIS 1.0 is going to be just what users need to make their storage systems work more effectively," says Bauer, who also is a member of the SNIA Customer Executive Council.

Interim measures

To be sure, little doubt exists that centrally managed heterogeneous SANs will ultimately be commonplace. Collaboration within the SNIA on open management standards is just one step vendors are taking to ensure they can play in this future.

Exchanging management APIs is another big thrust, manifested through a flurry of such agreements made last summer. HP, for example, struck management API deals with EMC, Hitachi and IBM. These API swaps give users the ability to manage the different vendors' storage devices from one management console.

HP considers the API licensing agreements useful stepping stones to open standards in that they show how comparable storage products from different vendors can be managed effectively, says Phil Kemp, HP's OpenView marketing manager. "It's always been important to recognize the customer's need for heterogeneous management solutions, and last year we felt that API licensing agreements were a way to provide those solutions until industrywide standards are in place," he adds.

Tony Marzulli, vice president of open software marketing at EMC, looks for adoption of the open management standards to result in shortened development cycles, essentially bringing new features to customers faster. Standards allow EMC to share the development burden with other vendors and to put research and development resources to use in other areas, he says. "We've invested a tremendous amount in developing software that can manage storage from other vendors - both through R&D and technology swaps with other companies," he adds.

Giga's Logren notes that while the API exchanges fill the standards gap, users need to remember they are one-of-a-kind relationships that won't provide as many benefits as universal standards. "Since we do not have storage management standards in place today, API exchanges become important for users with products from vendors who exchange APIs. But since these are not completely industry-pervasive, the coverage remains spotty for many customers," Logren adds.

Aside from the SMIS 1.0 storage specification, other standards initiatives are under way. For example, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards has formed a technical committee to develop an open standard management protocol that would provide a Web-based mechanism for monitoring and controlling network elements, including storage systems.

Ready or not, open management standards for storage are almost here.