iSCSI presents options for the channel

The standard is finalized, Microsoft is onboard, and there are enough products available to build IP SANs, but success may depend on VARs and integrators.

By Shaun Walsh

"The value of iSCSI can be summed up in one word: leverage," says Lee Payne, senior systems engineer at Overland Storage. The ability to leverage existing IP-based networking infrastructure is a key goal—and interoperability cornerstone—for the iSCSI community. And there is nearly unanimous belief that IP-based storage will create a new cost model for storage area networks (SANs). This model will be driven by low-cost IP networking and inexpensive RAID arrays based on ATA and Serial ATA disk drives.

The ability to build, manage, and understand the requirements for IP-based SANs will be critical skills for VARs, integrators, and storage administrators.

The concept of tiered SANs is a common theme when you bring iSCSI into the SAN equation. "Fibre Channel is the first tier of SANs and will remain dominant in the data center," says Tony Prigmore, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group (ESG). "The second tier of SANs will be led by iSCSI solutions that cost less and have less-demanding requirements than Fibre Channel. iSCSI is an option that should be added to every Fibre Channel SAN quote that a VAR does. This will bring the benefits of SANs to distributed environments, and the SAN tiers can be bridged to create a single storage management environment."

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One of the most significant events in the iSCSI space was Microsoft's announcement that it will provide free iSCSI software drivers for Windows Server 2003 and Windows 2000/XP, which is expected to move the market from technology demonstrations to early pilots and deployments.

Zane Adam, director of product management and marketing in Microsoft's Enterprise Storage Division, says, "Microsoft created the Enterprise Storage Division to provide better support for our customers, and iSCSI is part of our overall storage strategy. Windows Server 2003 provides new levels of storage capabilities that will enhance our role in the storage market and provide better industry support." (For more information, see "Windows Server 2003 means better storage management," InfoStor, April 2003, p. 1.)

"Microsoft is the single biggest factor in the viability of the iSCSI market," says Glenn Clowney, director of iSCSI product management at Adaptec, which recently entered the market with an iSCSI host bus adapter (HBA).

All of the requisite pieces for iSCSI SANs are available today, including HBAs and NICs that offload iSCSI processing from host servers, software drivers, bridges, and routers, and (from a limited number of vendors) native iSCSI tape libraries and disk arrays. With most of the requisite technology in place, how should VARs and integrators move to iSCSI? "Crawl, walk, and then run," advises Overland's Payne.

"Early testing based on Microsoft's iSCSI support has already begun, IT pilots will come later this year, and the first real deployments will roll out in early 2004," predicts ESG's Prigmore. "Vendors need to provide VARs with certified solutions, and VARs should focus on assessing the requirements, and designing and deploying solutions based on the certified configurations."

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VARs and storage integrators should look to vendors that provide "iSCSI certification recipes," as well as a broad range of support functions, including pre-sales support, certified interoperability, technical training, and post-sales support, according to Frank Berry, vice president of corporate marketing at QLogic.

Charlie Kraus, director of product marketing at LSI, agrees that certification programs will be key to ensuring interoperability and compatibility. "Certifications will be required for the channel to make iSCSI successful."

For example, earlier this month Microsoft rolled out a Designed for Windows iSCSI qualification program.

According to Microsoft's Adam, a key target application for iSCSI is Microsoft Exchange consolidation. "Many NAS vendors are focused on consolidating Exchange, but it's not tailored for NAS [network-attached storage]," says Adam. "iSCSI is an ideal technology for supporting Exchange, because it behaves like the local storage that Exchange expects." The ability to consolidate Exchange storage and reduce the number of servers required offers significant opportunity for VARs, integrators, and IT shops.

Many of the start-ups in the iSCSI market are not shy about taking shots at Fibre Channel SANs and positioning iSCSI just below the data-center space where Fibre Channel is expected to remain dominant. "We provide 80% of the functionality of Fibre Channel arrays for 20% of the cost," claims Ed Turner, vice president of marketing at Intransa, a start-up that sells fully configured IP SANs, including iSCSI disk arrays (see "IP SAN costs less than 2 cents per MB," InfoStor, May 2003, p. 11).

"One of our VARs was able to provide 2.5TB of iSCSI-interfaced disk for under $50,000, vs. more than $180,000 for a comparable Fibre Channel solution," claims Alan Yuhas, CEO of StoneFly Networks, another start-up in the IP SAN field.

According to Bill Holland, senior technical staff member at IBM, "iSCSI pre-sents the value proposition of one network [Ethernet] vs. two [Ethernet and Fibre Channel]." He adds, "We see iSCSI as an enabling technology for even higher density server blades by reducing the need for on-blade IDE disks."

Despite the potential for iSCSI, NAS and direct-attached storage are likely to remain dominant in small businesses for some time, in part because IT shops are generally cautious about new technologies. However, iSCSI can potentially provide most of the benefits of Fibre Channel SANs at a significantly lower cost. And with Microsoft driving adoption, interoperability and compatibility are not likely to be major problems.

All of these elements are expected to lead iSCSI across the adoption chasm. However, the trip will be a measured one. As shown in the figure on p. 24, the iSCSI industry still has work to do.

Despite the three-year journey to get iSCSI to its current level of functionality, many challenges remain. It may take another year of demonstrations, pilots, and first-stage deployments for iSCSI-based SANs to take a place in the enterprise.

The rush toward iSCSI is not universal, with some vendors taking a more cautious approach. "We're working with our OEM customers to bring complete solutions to the market," says Mike Kane, director of product marketing at Emulex. "We're not shipping our iSCSI products through the channel until we have completed our certifications."

Mark Freedkin, program manager for Ethernet connectivity in Quantum's Storage Solutions Group, says, "Our Gigabit Ethernet tape libraries are IP-enabled for support of NDMP, and as the momentum increases for iSCSI adoption, our testing and certification programs will enable our channel partners to provide a wider variety of connectivity options. Because our products are already IP-enabled, the move to iSCSI would require a simple software upgrade."

For more information about how early adopters are using iSCSI in IP SANs, see "iSCSI gains a toehold in SAN market," InfoStor, April 2003, p. 18.

Shaun Walsh has more than 20 years' experience in the storage industry and is a co-founder of the Excillio Group, which specializes in market intelligence services for the storage and server clustering markets. He was previously the general manager of I/O solutions at JNI. Walsh can be reached at shaun.walsh@excilliogroup.com.

This article was originally published on June 01, 2003