Storage industry debates standardized cloud API

Some argue it's too early to impose a standard on an emerging market, while others say a standard API for sending data to the cloud would spur adoption.

As interest around the cloud grows, industry experts are debating whether or not to establish a standard application programming interface (API) for sending data to and from cloud service providers.

Proponents of drafting a standard now say it will boost customer adoption to the cloud. Opponents say attempts to standardize an "on ramp" to the cloud this early might stifle innovation.

People on both sides made their point during a Cloud Storage Summit held by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) in January. Sajai Krishnan, CEO of cloud storage startup ParaScale Inc., said the prospect was raised of basing a potential standard on Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) API, which Krishnan said offers advances in the use of the HTTP to write and retrieve data over a network.

Amazon rival Nirvanix Inc. also uses HTTP to do writes, but has added more advanced features than S3, such as file system directory structures. "It's not the same old NFS mount," Krishnan said. "The community is still debating what is standard out there."

Vincent Franceschini, chairman of SNIA's board of directors, said the group is looking at Amazon's API as a de facto standard because it's one of the earliest and most widely adopted cloud services. However, Franceschini says Amazon has turned down offers to participate in formal discussions.

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"We are attempting to continue discussions with Amazon," he said. "They may attend a Birds of a Feather session coming up at FAST [the USENIX Conference on File and Storage Technologies]."

Amazon reps did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

In the meantime, Franceschini says SNIA has drafted a charter for a technical working group for cloud standards.

"We're still in discovery mode in terms of the technical focus," he said. "We're hoping to be able to announce more details at SNW [Storage Networking World] this spring."

SNIA's not the only group working on this issue. Reuven Cohen, chief technologist at Toronto-based cloud computing software company Enomaly Inc., is leading a cloud interoperability Google Group to draft a standard API, and is writing articles about the issue for an online publication he founded called Cloud Interoperability Magazine.. Cohen has begun drafting his version of an API specification using Google code.

But not everyone believes standards are the answer, at least not yet.

"My basic position is that if a standard could help users adopt the cloud quicker or make it easier to use, we're very much in favor [of it]," says Geoff Tudor, senior vice president of strategy and business development at Nirvanix. "But at the same time it's too soon for standards to be set in an industry that is so nascent. It might help adoption in some ways, but it might stifle innovation. Let's let things develop."

Another IT discipline, data security, has seen how standards efforts can muddy the waters rather than simplify things. A consortium led by seven major vendors submitted a standard for key management last week only to see Sun Microsystems Inc. propose its own key management standard Tuesday. Similar dynamics have come to light in previous storage standards efforts such as IBM Corp.'s Aperi group, which Sun walked away from in 2006.

Cohen wrote that he had encountered resistance from other vendors over the possibility that a standards-based API could make the cloud a race to commoditization for service providers. But, he countered in an article, "being a cloud provider shouldn't be about your API. It should be about the applications they enable."

Jeff Boles, senior analyst and director, validation services at Hopkinton, Mass.-based Taneja Group, suggests establishing early standards at least for core functions.

"There only needs to be standardization around a few core activities that are targeted more at interoperability than uniform services and structure," Boles wrote in an email to "What I care about as an end user is really carrying out a couple of key steps, in the same way, regardless of who the provider is (for example, copy, move, protect my data)." If there's no standard procedure for these activities, Boles wrote, "I would expect to see many innovators com[ing] to market with solutions that aim to provide a layer of standardization here by essentially acting as gateways to and between services."

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