The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) is developing important projects to help storage vendors' products interoperate. SNIA recently announced that it has created a Supported Solutions Forum, whose goal is to provide vendor-tested and supported Storage Area Network (SAN) solutions. The companies in the Supported Solutions Forum will offer customers tested heterogeneous SAN solutions with components that share the same fibre channel fabrics. Brocade, Compaq, EMC, Hitachi, IBM, and McData, the forum's founding members, expect several other vendors (e.g., Hewlett Packard—HP—and VERITAS) to join the forum. The two open SAN solutions that the six companies have qualified comprise 128-port fibre channel fabrics that let a variety of server platforms access data residing on Compaq StorageWorks, EMC Enterprise Storage, Hitachi Data Systems Freedom Storage, and IBM Enterprise Storage Server. One solution uses Brocade SilkWorm Fabric Switches, and the other uses McDATA ED-5000 Directors to create a heterogeneous SAN; each vendor's product occupies a logical zone at the switch, and all four data zones share the fibre channel fabric.

This forum differs from previous interoperability efforts. In addition to testing interoperability, these companies will cooperate to support each other's products. For example, vendors will create a shared Help desk. When service calls come in for a vendor's equipment, the vendor manning the Help desk will initiate the order and service the problem. In instances in which the on-call vendor can't or won't service another vendor's product, the Help desk vendor will pass the service request to the vendor whose equipment has a problem. If this program works the way it should, the SANs that these vendors have built from their components should have longer uptimes and be more reliable, which serves customers better.

Most of the large storage server manufacturers want open SAN solutions based on tested standards. SANs are still a new and growing technology, and such cooperation will accelerate customer adoption. Clearly, a SAN is more than a box and a switch—at least, that's the promise. Because a rising tide lifts all boats, industry members can make more money more easily if their products interoperate so that customers aren't stuck with SAN islands.

The Supported Solutions Forum's work should ultimately go beyond the initial open SAN solutions by expanding configuration sizes, involving additional vendors, adding more components, increasing the level of component interoperability, adding multivendor switch interoperability, and integrating popular storage networking applications.

This program has been a long time coming, and it's exactly the sort of endeavor SNIA can and should promote. The customer clearly wins, and so does the vendor. Although the large founding member companies can (and do) throw large amounts of money at the interoperability problem, they're well aware that delivering better overall hardware and software solutions to customers is where they should spend their time and efforts. SANs have a reputation for being expensive and locking customers into a limited set of vendors—something that SANs shouldn't do. The pressure on other vendors to join this forum will grow over time.