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Stack Overflow: The New Meme

by Administrator on August 17, 2006

I write a column for Storage magazine in the Netherlands. Commencing with the last issue, however, they have taken to translating my work into Dutch, so it is limited to Dutch-language speaking readers in terms of its reach. (Huge sighs of relief from the industry!)

The good news is that copyright remains with me, so I will post these pieces in their original English (well, American English) here and/or on other sites I maintain.

Here is the next column for your reading pleasure: “Stack Overflow”

Every few years, a simple concept or expression takes on a special importance or meaning and becomes a “cultural meme.” Cultural memes are a sort of a shorthand expression for collective experience, describing a set of social, economic and technical issues that is on everyone’s mind at a certain point in time.

Recent examples of memes might include the Atomic age, the fast food society, the TV generation, e-business, the Internet age, dotcom boom, and the post-ENRON era. If one were to survey the memes that might be used to encapsulate trends and issues today, a front-runner might be “stack overflow.”

Originally, stack overflow described an error condition familiar to programmers: the placement of too much data into a memory structure, causing it to fail. While operating systems have matured to the point where most application stack overflow errors will not crash an entire system, they do present an on-going security risk.

Using vulnerable stack functions in application software, hackers can actually insert malicious code onto the disk drives of otherwise protected systems. They simply write their code into the vulnerable memory stack then wait for the stack to overflow so that its contents are written to the disk. Doing this in a deliberate manner over time enables the hacker to write his own software onto the target system, providing the means to take over the system itself.

So, one meaning of the meme “Stack Overflow” is the pervasive sense of insecurity we all have with respect to contemporary networked computing. We are finally waking up to the fact that it no longer matters whether we have installed best of breed firewalls, intrusion prevention systems or access controls. Applications and operating system software are porous and contain functions like improperly-coded stacks that can be exploited at will by a reasonably savvy interloper.

“The only way to keep data safe in a network,” as a friend of mine (and former National Security Agency director) is fond of saying, “is not to put it there in the first place.” This gem of wisdom, however, flies in the face of contemporary business reality and has not been observed by the storage industry, which seems hell bent on network-enabling storage going forward.

“Networked storage” is also a meme. It certainly isn’t a real technology. Neither contemporary FC SANs nor NAS are actually networked storage. They are direct-attached storage with a lot of marketing hype. Technically speaking, we have just begun to see real networked storage in Storage-over-IP offerings from Bell Micro, Netgear and others who have adopted Zetera Z-SAN technology. These products leverage the network protocol to provide RAID, copy on write and other key data pathing and virtualization processes instead of hardware based functionality in storage controllers or server HBAs. On the whole, the industry hates Storage over IP almost as much as they hate iSCSI. In both cases, the protocols decimate existing markets for hardware and service value-adds that account for 300% price mark-ups on commodity storage gear, generating huge revenues for the industry. They allow storage to be deconstructed and for consumers to leverage the falling cost of disk itself.

In their efforts to entrench and defend their non-networked, overpriced products, industry players have marketing departments working overtime to flood consumers with white papers and webcasts – ostensibly to better inform the consumer, but in fact to bury him in data points that make the formulation of intelligent purchasing decisions a Herculean task. The analyst community is going along for the ride, making big bucks selling their opinions to the highest bidders in the industry.

That is a second meaning of the Stack Overflow meme: too much information. Just sorting through all of the hype and disinformation circulating in the storage industry consumes an inordinate amount of time that storage planners would better spend managing their disk inventory. In the ongoing study underway at the Data Management Institute (www.datainstitute.org), A Day in the Life of the Data Manager, complaints repeatedly surface regarding the increasing volume and decreasing quality of information to guide storage decision-making.

Another complaint, closely related to the previous one, is that budgetary belt-tightening has led to staff size downsizing. The reality confronting more and more corporate IT organizations is that there are fewer people to do the same (or more) work. Stack overflow might also mean being assigned responsibility for too many tasks to accomplish any of them well.

Just this past month, I have heard from three long-time storage admins (and a few CIOs) who have resigned their posts (or will do so shortly) for just this reason. They no longer derive satisfaction from their jobs, which consist of putting out daily fires. The storage management tools promised by SNIA and by the industry for nearly a decade are still MIA. Those in the market are largely written off by consumers as abysmally lacking in functionality and integration. Instead of enabling smarter work, management tools add new burdens in terms of deployment, training and managing the manager. In most companies, multiple tools from multiple vendors are required just to keep the FC fabric up and running.

To a one, they don’t even want to hear about grandiose Information Lifecycle Management (ILM) concepts when much more basic Storage Resource Management (SRM) issues have yet to be resolved. ILM, as sexy as it may sound, just contributes to Stack Overflow.

In nature and physics, every action is met by a reaction. If I’m right, and Stack Overflow is the meme of our times, the reaction will be profound. Consumers will seek to drive complexity out of their environments: disposing of FC fabrics in favor of easy-to-deploy-and-manage storage alternatives. Additionally, service providers may become more successful this time around than they were in the late 1990s ASP craze. Simplified technology stacks will become much more important, focusing on software without hardware lock-ins. Watch the Microsoft-SAP relationship. Watch CA and Symantec and BridgeHead Software. Watch BMC Software. To a one, these companies are focused on hardware-agnostic software stacks to a much greater extent than are IBM, EMC, HDS or Sun Microsystems who, despite their software acquisitions and kinder-gentler-software-and-services marketing mantras of late, seem to continue to be fixated on joining software at the hip to their proprietary hardware.

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