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Open-Source Storage Beckons--But Will Storage Vendors Heed Its Call?

Since the open-source software model's infiltration into corporate computing, it was probably only a matter of time before somebody applied the open-source model to storage. Not surprisingly, some startup companies are trying to pioneer the use of open-source storage solutions. For example, a company aptly named Open Source Storage has unveiled three RAID storage subsystems that use the MySQL open-source database; the Community ENTerprise Operating System (CentOS), an enterprise-class Linux Distribution derived from the Red Hat Linux OS; and Nagios, an open-source host, service, and network-monitoring program. Many analysts see Open Source Storage as an early venture into an area that has yet to develop.

Also perhaps not unexpectedly, IBM has taken the lead in trying to establish a framework in which open-source storage can flourish. Last fall, IBM established an open-source community called Aperi, whose goal is to establish a common storage-management platform for managing storage systems from all vendors and serving as a common layer for storage-management software applications. Joining IBM at Aperi's launch were seven other industry heavyweights, among them Brocade Communications Systems, Network Appliance, CA, Sun Microsystems, and McDATA.

IBM also announced that it would donate part of its storage-infrastructure-management technology to the community. The idea is that other community members will also donate pieces of their intellectual property. And then, with the support of the consortium, other developers will create software based on the platform.

The open-source storage platform will incorporate open standards as well, such as the Storage Networking Industry Association's (SNIA's) Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S), which the SNIA created to develop and standardize interoperable storage-management technologies and aggressively promote them to the storage, networking, and end-user communities. In fact, according to Jamie Gruener, Tivoli storage market manager for IBM, part of the reason that IBM launched the initiative was to accelerate the adoption of SNIA standards. "SMI-S has not moved as fast as we hoped," he says. "Today it's a specification, but we want to agree on an implementation."

As IBM sees it, to date, storage management has focused primarily on managing capacity, but much more can be done. However, storage infrastructures are complex. "There are a lot of challenges in managing the infrastructure," says Gruener.

IBM executives believe that creating a common platform will unleash innovation. And the reason that it's no surprise that IBM is taking the lead here is that creating open-source frameworks in different domains of computing has become a central, if relatively unspoken, IBM strategy. The most notable example is Eclipse, which has emerged as a dynamic open-source IDE in the Java community. Many companies are now developing Java plug-ins for Eclipse. Along the same lines, in January, IBM announced it had donated its Unstructured Information Management Architecture to the open-source community. Once again, the idea is that an open-source framework will promote innovation in text analytics and the enterprise use of unstructured data.

Whether the same approach will work in the storage arena is an open question. First, although IBM has enlisted several notable allies, storage leaders such as EMC, HP, and Symantec have all declined to join. Officials from these companies argue that Aperi won't adhere to open standards, including SMI-S. And to drive home the distance between the groups, during the same week that IBM announced Aperi, HP rolled out Storage Essentials 5.0, the latest version of its storage-resource-management solution. HP noted during the announcement that Storage Essentials was based on open standards, including SMI-S, Desktop Management Task Force-Common Information Model (DMTF-CIM), and J2EE. According to Frank Harbist, vice president and general manager of information lifecycle management (ILM) and storage software at HP, Storage Essentials is designed to manage heterogeneous storage environments. Consequently, it's plausibly an alternative to whatever might be developed under the aegis of the Aperi project.

Moreover, IBM officials acknowledge that Aperi is just starting up. Fundamental issues such as how it will be governed and operate are still being resolved. But the idea that some major players chose not to embrace an open-source storage platform need not be its death knell. On the contrary, that kind of competition could be helpful to spurring innovation and a sense of urgency. The real question is whether the Aperi open-source community will be able to develop useful technology in a timely fashion

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