By Lisa Coleman
Storage distributors say demand for iSCSI products remains weak for several reasons, including lack of products, perceived performance limitations, interoperability concerns, and a general lack of understanding about the potential benefits of iSCSI in the reseller and end-user communities.
While demand remains low, distributors are preparing to educate their resellers about the potential benefits of iSCSI, which enables block-level storage traffic over standard IP networks and provides an alternative to Fibre Channel for building storage area networks (SANs). The Internet Engineering Task Force ratified the iSCSI protocol earlier this year.
"There's low demand for iSCSI products but high demand for information. Everybody wants to know about it and everybody wants to know where it fits," says Kevin Schoonover, director of engineering for Arrow Electronics' Enterprise Storage Solutions division.
Arrow distributes iSCSI products from several vendors, including host cards from Adaptec, Intel, LSI Logic, and QLogic, and iSCSI storage systems from vendors such as Network Appliance.
In July, Arrow became a distribution partner with Network Appliance and is currently performing interoperability testing of its partners' iSCSI cards with Network Appliance's iSCSI arrays. Arrow also performs accreditation training with EMC and is preparing a training program for its resellers based on EMC's iSCSI option for its Symmetrix DMX disk arrays.
However, interoperability remains a key issue. While iSCSI has been ratified as a standard, value-added resellers and end users require that products be qualified as interoperable.
"The channel is pragmatic. Everyone likes to look at new technology and what's coming down the pike, but nobody really wants to use it until it's qualified and they can make some money out of it. We're solutions-driven, and solutions means it all works together," says Jeff Brandes, vice president of distribution operations at Network Engines.
Network Engines, which acquired distributor TidalWire late last year, has a handful of partners (e.g., Emulex and QLogic) that have iSCSI products. However, Brandes believes it will be at least one year before there is a significant ramp in iSCSI products.
"I think the adoption of iSCSI is going to be driven by companies such as Microsoft and EMC, not only by announcing their support for iSCSI but by going the next step to qualify products to work in their environments," adds Brandes.
Microsoft announced availability of a free iSCSI initiator package earlier this year and Network Appliance recently announced that it would support multiple iSCSI initiators (Windows, NetWare, and Linux) on Intel-based platforms. NetApp has also launched a program to certify operation of third-party iSCSI products with its iSCSI systems (see sidebar on p. 8).
Having qualified products will drive demand for iSCSI because the channel will be comfortable recommending those products, explains Brandes.
Performance concerns are another factor that may hold back iSCSI adoption, says Rob Taylor, IBM storage manager at Pioneer-Standard.
"iSCSI doesn't perform sufficiently well to replace more-traditional methods of connecting disk storage in the midrange market," says Taylor, "but 10Gbps Ethernet may alleviate some of the performance bottlenecks."
All the distributors believe iSCSI will be a low-cost alternative to Fibre Channel SANs despite performance issues. And most distributors agree that the prime market for iSCSI will be Microsoft environments such as Exchange. "It's probably hard to justify the cost of a Fibre Channel SAN for those applications," says Arrow's Schoonover.
Pioneer-Standard's Taylor agrees that iSCSI will be a low-cost alternative to Fibre Channel, but for the low-end market and not the midrange. "iSCSI until now has been a relatively low-end solution with low-end performance. The Microsoft driver release for the most part underscores that," he says.
However, Arrow's Schoonover believes that midrange applications such as SQL Server, Lotus, and Domino will eventually benefit from iSCSI, as will applications such as remote mirroring over WANs.
The good news for end users is that, because of the plethora of technology options, costs will inevitably come down. "It's a strange time in storage because we have more choices than ever, more alternatives, and more solutions for customers. Of course, that kind of competition helps drive down costs," says Schoonover.
Network Appliance cranks up iSCSI
Last month, Network Appliance pumped up its iSCSI program by announcing support for Windows, Netware, and Linux iSCSI initiators on Intel-based platforms, as well as support for Intel's Pro/1000 T IP storage adapter and Adaptec's 7211C and 7211F iSCSI host bus adapters (HBAs).
NetApp has also developed a program to certify iSCSI adapters with its iSCSI storage arrays through a third-party company—Finisar.
"Our goal is to make iSCSI pervasively plug-and-play at the same level as standard NICs [network interface cards] for NAS. iSCSI is a new standard with a variety of products, and proof of plug-and-play is essential," says Rich Clifton, vice president of the SAN/iSAN business unit at Network Appliance.
Finisar will supervise iSCSI product qualification testing at its Medusa Labs facility in Austin, TX. Both Intel's and Adaptec's host cards have completed testing. Other products are in various phases of testing.
iSCSI protocol licenses for NetApp's NearStore, F800, and FAS900 systems are free to customers with software subscription contracts.