The emergence of open systems has had a profound impact on the development of data-communications technologies. For the past 20 years, open systems have successfully undermined the monolithic, single-vendor dominance of data processing, forcing vendors to pledge allegiance to open, multivendor solutions. At the heart of open systems is the standardization process, which ensures that customers needn't be bound to one supplier to benefit from new technical advances. Even the most attractive new technologies must demonstrate open-standards support before customers will consider the technologies for their data networks. The widespread rejection of proprietary initiatives means that even competing vendors must find ways to cooperate if they're going to be successful.

A variety of organizations embrace open-systems standardization. Standards organizations assume the challenging task of defining new technologies' common parameters to ensure compliant and interoperable new products. In mainstream IP networking, for example, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is the standards authority for a variety of TCP/IP-based technologies, including management, security, and Quality of Service (QoS) initiatives. When evaluating IP networking products, customers often require compliance with the relevant IETF Requests for Comments (RFCs), which detail the behavior of protocols or features. A product's failure to comply with the appropriate IETF standards often means disqualification from consideration.

Although standards bodies have considerable market influence, they draw their technical expertise from an army of volunteers. Participants might be individual technologists, academics, vendor representatives, or paid consultants representing corporate or vendor interests. Generally, a standards body discourages overt company identification or influence. Discussion of and decision-making about technical matters are democratic and open to any interested individual, but the standards process demands informed input specific to a standard's current stage of development.

Vendors' challenge is to create standards-compliant products while offering differentiating value to the customer. Because vendors are active participants in the standards process, cooperating on fundamental features that promote the technology is in the vendors' interest. However, vendors often withhold unique technical advantages from the standards process to maintain a competitive edge. In some instances, as in the case of Fibre Channel switch standards, this stalling tactic results in customer dissatisfaction and retards technology adoption. The era in which an individual company can arrogantly declare itself to be "the" standard is long gone, although this reality hasn't yet sunk in to some vendors.

Storage-networking technology involves many standards organizations. Fibre Channel Storage Area Network (SAN) vendors rely on the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS)/ANSI T10 committee for SCSI protocol issues and NCITS/ANSI T11 committee for Fibre Channel-specific transport issues. In addition, some SAN management components rely on out-of-band (OOB) SNMP methods that the IETF has standardized. For example, an internal draft defines the Fibre Channel Management Integration MIB, although Fibre Channel falls under the standards authority of NCITS/ANSI.

With the introduction of IP storage networking, Gigabit Ethernet use for high-performance transport introduces standards that the IEEE 802.3 committee defines. The protocols for moving block storage data over IP networks are being defined in the IETF through a number of Internet Drafts, as are the discovery and management mechanisms for IP storage. In addition, encapsulation of SCSI in TCP/IP necessarily involves compliance to NCITS/ANSI T10 standards. Vendors who provide connectivity to Fibre Channel storage devices must be sure their products are NCITS/ANSI T11-compliant as well.

This parfait of standards helps ensure interoperability and open-systems commitment from lower-level physical transports to the upper-layer protocols essential for the SAN infrastructure. On top of these protocols, customers run business applications that, although not subject to the same standards rigor as the infrastructure, enjoy a firm open-systems foundation to run upon.

The discussion of standards applies to the SAN infrastructure, the plumbing over which end-user applications are run. Those upper-layer applications, however, aren't generally subjected to the same standards criteria—you can back up with VERITAS Software software, for example, but you can't restore that same data with Legato Systems software.