In the IT enduser community, the idea of Open Source brings with it a plethora of elation as well as fear. Ask anyone who is an IBM AS/400 and they will tell you that they are stuck in their for life – at least until they decide to get out of what they put themselves into.

Yes, IBM AS/400 (rebranded as IBM System i in 2006 and subsequently replaced by the IBM Power System line) is a very stable platform. The many applications developed for it are rock solid, enterprise-class software that do what they are meant to do. Throughout its period of reincarnation (1988 to present), the hardware and software may have changed but IBM made sure the applications are transplanted. 

I am digressing so let me paraphrase one CIO comment about their AS/400 investment. “We are stuck and we know we are paying through the nose but we have no alternative today!”

Distributed Computing (DC) arose partly in response to the need to get out of the mainframe and mini-computer era of vendor lock-in. Little did we know that while DC hailed the arrival of an army of vendors offering competing and complementary systems, the liberation was partial – because many of the initial technologies created in support of DC are proprietary in nature. Sure they are able to talk to other vendor’s solutions but this is because application programming interface (API) were built to allow for some semblance of interoperability.

Enter Open Source. The idea that a program’s code is freely available to the end-user community to use and modify to suite a particular need. Can a software company survive giving away its software? Red Hat thinks so. In fact, within the Open Source community, Red Hat is a testament to the idea that you can give away copies of your software (even if it was originally conceived by someone else), make money and prosper.

SUN Microsystems is another company that is heavy into the Open Source momentum. But whereas RedHat is 100% open source, SUN still has technology that is proprietary – afterall, SUN started life in the proprietary world. It can be argued that JAVA was SUN’s first experiment in Open Source. Thankfully, the JAVA community thrives today despite competition.

As with all things, proven or otherwise, there are skeptics. In human nature, the biggest fear is always that of the unknown. For many enterprises whose businesses depend on the smooth running of mission-critical applications, the high price associated with proprietary hardware, middleware or operating systems, custom application, and availability of skilled resources is a bitter sweet pill that they’d readily swallow.

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Three months ago I had an opportunity to meet an ex-SUN storage evangelist – Robert Nieboer – who spoke elonquently about the concept of Open Storage. According to Nieboer, Open Storage suggests that you buy standard, commodity products like controllers and hard disks, and install an “Open Source” operating system that includes storage resource management, and you get a storage subsystem that will perform pretty much everything that a similarly configured storage solution from IBM, EMC, HP, HDS, NetApp or Fujitsu, but at a fraction of the cost – 10% to be precise.

Certainly at 10% of the costs of a convention storage solution from mainstream storage vendors, you’d wonder why there is no mad rush to get into the open storage bandwagon.

I took the opportunity to broach the concept of open storage to three CIOs. The response were unanimous – “no, thank you!”. Why?

Michael Leung, CIO for China Construction Bank (Hong Kong branch), notes that banks are probably some of the most conservative businesses on the planet. Highly regulated, all activities are monitored and audited. Every piece of technology the bank is using has likely got the auditor’s seal of approval. Any changes to the type of infrastructure would warrant long meetings, supported with lengthy documentation, with auditors. Its ok to pay through the nose as long as CCB complies with set standards and regulations.

Like Leung, Raymond Ngai, Head of IT Infrastructure for the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), meeting government regulatory requirements is just as important as keeping data secure 24x7x365. The Jockey Club sites on 35TB of data housed across the main data center and the disaster recovery (DR) site. Like CCB, the Jockey Club likes to stay with old and reliable (I prefer to call it predictable).

One head of IT who bucked the perception was Thomas Lee, Computer Operations Manager at HACTL (Hongkong Air Cargo Terminal Ltd). Lee says HACTL is constantly on the lookout for IT solutions that would deliver significant ROI. Certainly if you can save 90% of your storage budget, that warrants a label of significant ROI. But you have to pay attention to the fact that HACTL’s business isn’t as highly regulated at CCB or HKJC.

Apart from SUN, none of the other major storage vendors in Asia (EMC, IBM, HP, NetApp and Dell) have an open storage story to tell. Why should they? Such a story could potentially cannibalize their “open but proprietary” storage offerings. SUN is not invulnerable either. IDC ranks SUN as 5th in terms of storage sales, with double-digit growth – like everyone else. Much of this growth is attributable to SUN’s storage business derived from OEM partnerships with Hitachi, LSI and Dothill.

Certainly SUN’s proposition that storage should not cost as much as it does today has it merits. The question that CIOs and business managers need to ask is ‘whether the technology is mature enough today to warrant taking the plunge.’

The likely answer is ‘no.’

It will probably take a few more years before open storage becomes a viable solution for mission critical applications. Like Linux and the open systems platform, early adoptors can take the opportunity to test the solution either on development platforms or applications that live on Tier 3 storage platforms.

Today the verdict is out – open storage is not ready for prime time. But like the probervial Gartner Hype Cycle, the technology will reach a point where it becomes mature enough to consider. Until then, stick with the tried and tested, albeit expensive and proprietary solutions available from everyone else.

For more on Open Storage, check out the following sites:
SUN Open Storage
OpenStore
DotHill Open Storage
SGI Open Storage