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Can Jini answer prayers for better storage?

Sun's instant networking technology could be the solution to increasingly complex data management

By Rick Cook

June  1999
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Sun's Jini has the potential to revolutionize storage and the way storage interacts with individual computers and networks. Jini enables the drive-and-network-interface as a unit, provides an easy, cross-platform means to connect storage, and can cut costs and ease headaches for users and storage vendors alike. Companies like Seagate and Quantum are supporting Jini in the hopes that its promise will come to fruition, but how long it will take to get products to market is still an open question. (2,200 words)

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Although Jini is touted as a product for consumer devices, its actual reach may be far broader. In particular, Jini is likely to have significant impact in the networked storage arena, having already received strong support from storage giants Quantum and Seagate, as well as Sun's own networked storage division. Indeed, Jini offers significant advantages at all levels of storage technology, from the individual disk or tape to enterprise level data management.

"We think Jini is an absolutely natural fit," says Valerie Negler, vice president of new business development at Seagate Technology in Scotts Valley, CA. "We really like the intelligence that Jini affords to a storage device. In our opinion, that's a real shift and a major step forward."

For the time being, this is only a promise. Currently, no one is shipping Jini-enabled storage devices, and although some are expected before the end of the year, it will probably take a couple of years before Jini-based storage products can influence the market. Meanwhile, Microsoft is trying to cover some of the same territory with its Universal Plug and Play (UPP), which has also just been released as a specification. (See "Anything to everything: Sun's Jini battles Microsoft and others for instant networking market.")


A new paradigm
From the desktop to the enterprise, the conventional methods for handling data storage are unable to keep pace with the rapidly expanding number of different storage devices.

"It costs seven to ten times as much to manage storage as it does to manage storage devices," says Paul Borrill, vice president and chief architect for Quantum's Digital Linear Tape (DLT) storage systems group, quoting a figure commonly accepted in the industry. "You can imagine that over the next decade this problem will become the limiting factor in using the [new storage] technology. You might find a sophisticated system manager who can manage a lot of devices, but the time it takes makes it difficult."

Current storage management is hampered by the lack of an effective way to learn automatically what is connected to the network. Also missing is a method that will group devices, according to their characteristics or content, for management. This is doubly true in mixed-storage environments, such as those in which a single disk array provides storage for, say, both Windows NT and Solaris clients.

Current storage management is hampered
by the lack of an effective method to
learn automatically what is connected to
the network.

Further complicating matters, devices that need storage management aren't limited to hard disks, but can also include recordable CDs and various varieties of tape and magneto-optical drives for backup and special purposes.

Present methods for announcing these devices to the network either require someone to enter the information about the devices -- with the attendant possibility of mistakes -- or require the software to make guesses about the characteristics of connected devices. If the software is good, it will often guess correctly -- but not always.

"Jini will allow us to address [the need for automation] in a number of ways," Borrill says. "System managers' jobs would be enormously simplified by having devices plug and play, and then having aggregates of those devices they can manage with a simple mouse click."

Because of Jini's potential in this area, most storage management vendors, including Computer Associates International (CA) and Seagate, have active Jini projects. When Jini was formally announced, CA said it would add Jini support to its Unicenter TNG enterprise management software, including making Unicenter register as a Jini service.

Of course, Sun's own open storage management initiative, Project StoreX, is also planning to use Jini. "Project StoreX with Jini software will benefit the entire storage industry because it offers a powerful way to facilitate the interoperation of devices from multiple vendors," said Sun Network Storage Unit President Janpieter Sheedeer in his January announcement at the Jini launch.

To facilitate the building of Jini applications for storage and network management, Sun released its Java Dynamic Management Kit 3.2 with Jini technology at the Java Enterprise Solutions Symposium in April. The kit includes JavaBeans, development tools, and a management plug-in to help manage networks, as well as SNMP services that allow Jini technology to be used with existing Web-based management solutions.

Storage management is a problem, but even the simple business of attaching a storage device to a desktop computer needs to be rethought. For instance, if a user wants to add a new hard disk to a networked computer, he or she must take the computer offline, open the case, install the new disk, power up, go into the BIOS setup routine, enter the characteristics of the device, and reboot. If everything works locally, the user then must power off and reconnect to the network.

"On the desktop people are no longer deleting things," Borrill says. "It takes too much time to go and delete and manage things on a PC. It's less costly to buy another disk than to use my time to manage overhead on existing storage."

What administrators need, increasingly, is a way to automate the process. In effect, one would like to turn the storage device into an object that can be handled like any other object on the network.

"With Jini you've got spontaneous recognition of the device," says Negler."What we want to do is to give the devices along the entire data path more functionality to collapse the chain of the data patch [giving storage devices more embedded functionality so they can become active participants in the process of installation and management instead of just passive parts]. The disk drive could have the functionality of a little miniserver, in terms of talking to the network."

This accomplishes two things. First, it means that configuration and management can be more precise. Rather than relying on what the BIOS has been told about a storage device, for example, a desktop system with Jini-enabled storage can automatically query the device directly for the needed information. In a large system, storage management can be extended to include automatic load balancing and performance tweaking, using Jini to let the storage devices communicate with the management software.

You can do all these things today, of course. But you can't do them universally and automatically.

"Take Jini in a small office that doesn't have an IT infrastructure," says Negler. "A Jini device can be plugged into the network and used for any kind of storage, including automatic backup service invisible to the users. They wouldn't need to know what needed to back up. And in the case of an upgrade [of a user's hard drive] you could replace the contents automatically."

Using a small program with the necessary information running on top of Jini on a device provides these capabilities. The storage device and application will have to be Jini-enabled, and have enough ROM to store the necessary information.

Goodbye device drivers
Jini offers a way around handling drivers. "There are no device drivers with Jini," says Borrill. "You download dynamically whatever you need to manage that device. It's done completely transparently in the background."

While device drivers for disk drives are increasingly standardized, this is not the case with drivers for other types of storage devices. Tape drives are a special consideration for Quantum because the company is a leader in high-capacity DLT (Digital Linear Tape) format drives, and tape support is much less standardized in storage management software than disk drive support. Picking a storage management system, including backup, still means being constrained by the tape formats supported by the software. Since there are perhaps a dozen major tape formats in use from the desktop to the enterprise, and since most of them come in several different capacities, the limiting factor on choosing a tape format or storage management system is often compatibility between the two.

Ad hoc storage
Jini offers storage networks support for ad hoc networks that break apart and reform constantly. For example, a Jini-enabled network can recognize the moment when a Jini-enabled notebook computer id plugs into a network, and when it is removed.

Jini-based networked storage may also appear in logistics and manufacturing. In warehouses, on trucks, and in factories, a lot of information is collected by stand-alone, hand-held terminals that are only occasionally connected to the network. Jini applications can recognize the terminal, collect the data when the terminal is connected, and route the information to the appropriate destination.

Wireless networking is very popular in logistic applications because it gives the roaming ability that these jobs need. But it is extremely difficult to design a wireless network that will maintain a consistent connection in a factory, warehouse, or truck park. The usual approach is to install enough LAN transceivers so that there are no dead spots. This can require an awful lot of transceivers. If the handheld device can collect and store data when it can't reach the network and then automatically reconnect and download, it would be a major cost savings, and close enough to real time for the majority of these applications.

Jini provides an ideal tool for writing applications in which the terminal or other device is connecting and disconnecting sporadically. The network topology stays intact even if a node (the handheld) device is popping in and out, and the uploading and downloading can be handled transparently so that the user doesn't know or care if the device is connected continuously.

Software, scalability, and security
Adapting Jini for storage is not without difficulties, however. Storage companies that are looking at Jini want to push it further than Jini's designers originally envisioned.

Jini provides the foundation for the kinds of applications companies like Seagate and Quantum are developing, but it doesn't provide the services themselves. Those have to be written on the Jini foundation and that will take time.

Jini is also not designed to manage the sort of worldwide networks of devices that these scenarios are likely to produce.

"Every complex system, when it scales, needs to be modularized and [placed in a hierarchy] to be managed," Borrill says. "What I would see happening is a modularization of how Jini manages modular devices."

In addition, Jini does not offer the specific security precautions which will be necessary to prevent tampering and ensure data privacy.

Borrill points out, however, that because Jini is based on Java, it inherits Java's security advantages -- in particular, an explicit security model.

"What we have is a basic foundation for helping to manage the security question," he says. Among other things, the Java Security Method separates the policy (the rules for managing security) from the mechanism (the actual technique used to manage security), which makes it easier to define and implement security.

Steady progress
The first Jini-enabled devices will probably show up later this year, but it will be much longer before Jini makes a substantial impact on the storage industry.

As chair of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), a storage trade group, Borrill is familiar with a lot of companies' Jini plans, but they remain largely confidential for the time being.

Seagate claims it will ship by the end of the year. "I know Seagate is looking to do a product by the end of the year and it looks like it's on schedule," Negler says. She adds it will be a disk drive product.

"There's always a vision phase in a revolutionary new technology like this," Borrill says. "Then reality sets in. Then comes the slow building of the technology to get products available to the early adopters."

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About the author
Rick Cook is based in Phoenix, AZ, and divides his time between writing science-fiction/fantasy novels ("full of bad computer jokes") and writing about high technology. His most recent features for SunWorld were"Solaris and Windows NT: The odd couple gets cozy" and "Emergence of the 'unoperating' system."

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