The European end user council has been running since 2002 (the US version has been going much longer) and was set up with the aim of ensuring that the Storage Networks Industry Association (SNIA) in both the US and Europe benefitted from the users' point of view. "In the US, end user councils have been established to give a focus from end users to storage vendors," says Peter Hull, the new chairman of the SNIA Europe's UK regional end-user council.
It might be argued that there is no need for yet another standards body: the IT industry has them in abundance. Only last week, in San Francisco, there was a meeting of 32 different standards organisations to attempt to establish some sort of coherent approach to the question of IT standards.
But Hull thinks there are some very good reasons for users to get involved in the SNIA initiative. He points out that there has been little opportunity, up until now, for users to influence the way vendors think. The philosophy behind the end user council is to let users feed their views to the vendor community - in a way that has worked for similar organisations.
Compatability - the main concern
There have been difficulties along the way. One of the problems that Hull has come across is the reluctance by members from end-users' organisations to become involved in the Association. "At end user council meetings we discovered that several members were interested but were not allowed to stand because their companies would not let them get involved." He points out that this is a common occurrence in the UK and contrasts sharply with the US, where employees have little difficulty in finding the time to get involved in user groups and industry bodies. What he finds particularly annoying is that encouraging vendors and users to work closely together, on issues such as compatibility, would benefit everyone. In the long run, end user organisations would find themselves paying a lot less for storage networking.
He sees compatibility as the key issue for users. "When you talk to users, the main concern they have is compatibility, with management not too far behind. The compatibility problem is that you cannot interconnect Fibre Channel stuff from different manufacturers. Some of the standards are too lax, i.e. you can put your own extensions on them to make them non-standard."
There are bound to be some debates over the financing. Hull says that different European countries have differing attitudes towards subscriptions, making it hard to find a suitable level of subs. The exact subscription structure has not yet been established, so all prices are speculation at the moment. But Hull envisages two levels of membership. "I see us having a paid membership, costing something like 100 Euros and providing full voting rights, and a free membership that would provide information on storage networking but would not allow members the vote."
"100 euros sounds a lot to us in Europe, but in the US, such a sum would be nothing. There are big differences within Europe, it would be harder to get money for membership for such a body in the UK than it is in France," he says.
SNIA Europe wants to go further than just lobbying vendors. One of the ideas the organisation is looking at is education. "One area that we could look to develop is qualification," says Hull. SNIA Europe has just taken its first steps in this area with the introduction of its own exams designed to improve the education process. The hope is that many resellers and manufacturers will encourage their employees to sit the exams (further information can be found at http://www.snia-europe.org/snia/education/sncp/index.html).
Lack of expertise
He thinks that far too many of the people involved in storage don't have much idea what they're talking about. "One of the problems is that there are too many storage qualifications but they don't mean anything"
He even finds this lack of expertise displayed in some unlikely areas, including the vendors themselves. He says that there are many instances. "To take just one example: EMC brought out a heterogeneous fibre adaptor, but the company's own guide didn't understand what it was and how it worked. I had to talk to their interoperability lab about it and explain what it did. You could almost see the light bulb go on over their heads."
Hull hopes that the end user council can be far more aggressive in ensuring that vendors offer users what they really want. He's concerned that too many vendors retreat behind buzzwords and marketing hype when it comes to offering storage products. He believes that vendors should be thinking about how users really use the products that are being sold to them. He cites the current trend towards single-fabric products, where too much talk has been about reliability, something that he feels is missing the point. "There should always be two fabrics, no-one would risk networking storage with one fabric, but various vendors will talk about five nines reliability on the fabric. That's ignoring the fact that it's always something stupid - human error that can't be accounted for, such as pulling out the plug - that causes the problem."
He says the vendors don't even believe their own hype. "I was at conference other day and the panel were all talking about single fabric reliability. I asked the panel members if they would be happy relying on a single fabric. With only one exception, all the panellists ducked the question." Not unreasonably, he asks that if the vendors themselves can't answer this question, why should user organisations be expected to take them on board? He thinks this is down to the fundamental issue that "people forget that networking storage is not the same as networking data. If a network connection goes down, it's not a disaster. But if you lose your stored data, it certainly is."
It's early days so far, but Hull hopes that the user council will offer an opportunity for vendors to deal with issues such as these. He's aware that it will be a hard slog. He also knows there will be logistical difficulties and that he's going to have to work hard to get users to buy in. But he believes that he has to start somewhere.
The US users have been far more pro-active. He points out wryly, that the US users don't seem to have the problems that their European counterparts do. They are certainly less likely to complain. "There are two possible explanations: either we're much more critical over here or they've been seeing different stuff to us." Certainly, if Hull could take the US desire for involvement and the European desire to really push vendors in a direction more truly conducive to users' needs, the SNIA could be a real force to be reckoned with.