What Drives Storage Networking Innovation?

Exactly how much influence do consumers have on the development of new storage networking products? Just as politicians like to project an image of reflecting their constituencies' popular will, vendors often present their products as responses to customer demands rather than new ideas that the vendors are imposing on consumers. According to vendors, the ideal products are the result of careful analysis of customer requirements obtained through in-depth discussions of customer needs. Vendors then apply technology to satisfy those needs, so that rather than imposing new solutions on customers, the new solutions themselves express the will of the customer. Ideally, this dialog between customer and vendor drives product development and creates a cycle of innovation based on customers' evolving business requirements.

In reality, however, the process isn't so clear-cut. An individual customer might be able to clearly relate its immediate needs but might be less knowledgeable about industrywide needs. One customer might accelerate demand for a new capability at the same time another customer delays that demand. Also, customers' needs can change too rapidly for vendors to keep up with. For example, unexpected changes in a customer's business policies might suddenly create new requirements. Vendors must listen carefully to their customers' individual requests, but if vendors relied solely on customer input, they'd risk trailing behind actual market needs. Following a customer's lead might retard technological development; getting too far ahead of the customer might result in new solutions that can't solve real-world problems. Technologists must be able to parse current customer requirements and use the results to envision future needs. Thus, vendor innovations—as well as customer requirements—drive the storage networking industry.

For example, basic customer demands for high-availability data access, tape backup, and storage consolidation helped define early storage networking solutions. The pent-up demand for these solutions quickly vaulted them into top-tier enterprise networks. Since then, however, the storage industry as a whole has failed to respond quickly to customer requests that arose in response to deployed Storage Area Network (SAN) products. Interoperability, complexity, scalability, management, and cost continue to inhibit adoption of storage networking. Eighty-five percent of the market continues to use Direct Attached Storage (DAS), and many large companies have been unable to scale and extend networked storage across the enterprise. Vendors didn't foresee customers' complaints that shared storage is too complex and too difficult to manage. Therefore, development of storage virtualization products (which address these complaints) trails somewhat behind customer desires, and a portion of the market must wait for vendors to catch up before more pervasive implementation can occur.

Early in the development of shared-storage technology, customers also expressed the desire to implement shared-block storage over traditional IP networks. Initial inhibitors included lack of a high-performance topology (Gigabit Ethernet wasn't available) and lack of native IP storage protocols. However, pioneering vendors have accelerated development of IP storage products in recognition of the substantial investment customers already have made in infrastructure, training, and support for their mainstream data-communications networks. The migration of SANs into mainstream IP networks satisfies customers' long-standing requests for less problematic and less expensive shared-storage solutions.

Storage networking will achieve widespread adoption when customers can acquire infrastructure and applications that meet their immediate needs and fulfill the basic criteria of open standards, scalability, and extensibility. To realize this objective, vendors and customers both must lead the storage industry and together draw the guidelines for its further evolution. To support such interaction, the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) has created the Consumer Council so that vendors and customers can define meaningful objectives for the industry. Participation in SNIA gives end users the opportunity to provide input and direction to product development that might span multiple vendors and technologies. Readers who would like more information about SNIA and its Consumer Council can access the SNIA Web site or email me.

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