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Standards or product development?

Standards or product development?

Standards or product development?

SURPRISE, THERE'S A new standards-making group on the storage scene. Just what we need, right? I'm all in favor of standards. When they address real hardware/software issues and are universally accepted, they make life easier for storage managers and storage cheaper to make and buy. But while we're waiting for dramatic developments to roll out of existing standards outfits such as the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), instead we get another standards organization.

The new Storage Bridge Bay (SBB) Working Group was formed to promote a standard spec for the electrical and mechanical interfaces between a drive array's backplane and a controller component. The principal SBB standard-bearers are Dell, EMC, Intel and LSI Logic, with approximately nine other companies comprising the current membership roster.

In a curious twist, those key movers and most of the new group's other members are also SNIA members. But despite their active SNIA memberships, this new standards-setting squad isn't part of SNIA. It's like a Russian matryoshka doll: You open it to find an exact, but smaller, replica on the inside. Open that one and there's another smaller one inside. I guess you can pop the top off one standards body and find another inside.

Is the SBB Working Group competing with the SNIA? Not so, says spokesman Bill Dawkins, the group's chairman and Dell technology strategist. Dawkins says they chose to create a new group to expedite their planned spec. That doesn't seem too encouraging for SNIA if its members feel a need to spin off new organizations when they want to create a new standard. But maybe Dell, EMC, Intel, LSI Logic and their comrade companies didn't think they could get enough support among SNIA's rank and file to launch their effort.

Most unsettling for what's supposed to be a standards-making body is the lack of a competitive mix to the SBB Working Group's member list. Where's Hewlett-Packard? And what about Hitachi Data Systems, IBM, Network Appliance or Sun? Dawkins says the SBB is open to any company willing to pony up a relatively modest entry fee. But he declined to say if any of those other storage heavy-hitters were approached. It's a little hard to imagine that any spec cobbled together without the support and participation of more than one major storage vendor has a real chance of becoming a standard. At least a standard outside the walls of Dell, EMC, Intel and LSI Logic.

There are typically two routes to standardization. One way is for the major players in an industry to get together, put aside their differences and hammer out some specs that promise to save everyone money, time and grief. These efforts have a good chance of success because of the collective heft of the participants, which is often bolstered by the involvement of a neutral standards body like the IEEE. Standards may also happen unintentionally. When IBM built its first PC, it used off-the-shelf parts. When the PC turned into a huge success, its standard-parts pedigree made it easy for other companies to build what were essentially duplicates. So the IBM PC and its easy-to-source components became a de facto standard that's been around for more than 25 years.

The SBB Working Group doesn't resemble either of these scenarios. Eschewing existing standards organizations and lacking broad industry membership puts the viability of its work in doubt and raises some questions. The biggest of these is: Is this a standards-building effort or just product development?

I hope I'm wrong and the SBB team creates an innovative interface that gets widely adopted. But the skeptical New Yorker in me says this looks more like marketing than standards development.


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