Users extol the virtues of iSCSI, part 1

By Dave Simpson and Kevin Komiega

In the first installment of our series on iSCSI case studies, we focus on companies that have implemented, or will soon implement, iSCSI-based IP SANs in virtual server environments.

BB&K: E-mail archiving

Best Best & Krieger LLP (BB&K) is a law firm with more than 185 attorneys located in eight offices throughout California. BB&K serves a variety of public and private sector clients, including businesses, school districts, and municipalities. The firm currently represents 30 California cities as contract city attorney. Because the legal industry is governed by strict privacy and compliance standards, in its search for a new storage system BB&K focused on data protection, reliability, and availability.

The firm’s technology infrastructure comprised mostly Hewlett-Packard servers running VMware ESX to virtualize a variety of environments, including Windows Server 2003. After implementing Symantec’s Enterprise Vault for company-wide e-mail archiving, BB&K needed secondary storage to archive data from Microsoft Exchange. Since the firm’s operations are conducted 24x7, they needed a storage configuration that would provide fast access to the archive data.

Ron Kauffman, BB&K systems engineer, was tasked with evaluating storage systems for the e-mail archive project, and he first evaluated Fibre Channel-based SAN systems. “Fibre Channel is the traditional route, but it’s much more expensive and technically more challenging to implement and maintain,” says Kauffman. “iSCSI is less expensive and easier to implement.”

Ron Kauffman
System Engineer BB&K

BB&K took both capital and operating expenses into account, and it was the overhead and support costs of Fibre Channel that proved prohibitive because of the need for specialized expertise for management and troubleshooting, which translates into higher labor costs and training expenses. In contrast, an iSCSI-based IP SAN could minimize costs by leveraging familiar and existing network technologies such as IP networks and Gigabit Ethernet switches, as well as operating costs by leveraging the IT staff’s expertise to minimize administration time. In addition to lower cost, Kauffman determined that iSCSI would not require sacrifices in performance, reliability, and availability.

In its search for an iSCSI solution, BB&K enlisted the help of Agile360, a technology consulting and engineering firm. After reviewing its selection criteria, which included total cost of ownership (TCO), price/performance ratio, configuration flexibility, and expandability, Agile360 recommended iStor Networks’ iS325 iSCSI system.

iStor’s iS325 disk array, which includes the company’s GigaStorATX iSCSI RAID controller, was populated with 15 750GB SATA drives for 11.25TB of total capacity. The iS325 can be configured with four or eight Gigabit Ethernet ports, or with one 10Gbps Ethernet port. BB&K has an 8-port version, although the company is currently using only two of the Gigabit Ethernet ports.

At the core of the iS325 is a chip that integrates iSCSI and TCP/IP offload with embedded processors running a storage virtualization firmware stack. An IP-based management GUI enabled the creation, management, expansion, and monitoring of storage pools, volumes, and RAID.

One of the features of the iS325 that Kauffman particularly likes is the ability to create multiple RAID volumes. “I can create, say, a 2TB RAID-10 volume and a 1TB RAID-5 volume in the same array, which enables us to slice up a database according to different performance and capacity requirements. Some other vendors force you to select only one RAID configuration per array.”

The iS325’s RAID volumes are connected to the VMware ESX servers via QLogic’s SANblade QLA4050C iSCSI host bus adapters (HBAs), with two HBAs per server for performance and redundancy. Although most iSCSI implementations rely only on iSCSI software initiators (which are typically free from vendors such as Microsoft), BB&K spent extra on the iSCSI HBAs to get the maximum performance for the ESX virtual servers, according to Kauffman.

iStor’s iS325 iSCSI array provided BB&K with a secondary storage solution for its e-mail archive data. Benefits included

  • $2,500 monthly savings in storage costs vs. another iSCSI solution that was evaluated;
  • The ability to virtualize storage and connect to existing server and storage pools for maximum hardware utilization and flexibility;
  • Ability to leverage the company’s existing network infrastructure and expertise; and
  • Simplified management and reduction in administration time.

Next on BB&K’s implementation plans are disk-to-disk backup and recovery, as well as a high-availability project that might include a remote iSCSI array and replication software from iStor partner InMage Systems. -DS

Rockford Construction: Consolidation

Rockford Construction, based in Grand Rapids, MI, is another example of a company that saw the benefits of iSCSI in a virtual-server environment. Before implementing an IP SAN and virtualization, the company had seven aging (three to five years old) Windows servers in a direct-attached storage (DAS) configuration. Capacity was running low, so Rockford took the interim step of migrating/archiving large amounts of data on to CDs and DVDs to free up capacity on the DAS servers. This arrangement caused severe data-access problems for the company’s users.

When Shawn Partridge, vice president of IT at Rockford, came onboard about five months ago, he recommended a consolidation project, which eventually resulted in only two physical servers hosting virtualization software from Virtual Iron (because it was less expensive than implementing VMware). As part of the consolidation project, Partridge installed an IP SAN in the form of a 7.5TB Swarm 3200 iSCSI disk array and software from Hifn. (About 6.5TB are allocated, with 1.5TB reserved for future growth.) The company evaluated a Fibre Channel SAN but decided against it for the all-too-familiar reasons: cost and complexity, according to Partridge.

Rockford’s application portfolio includes Microsoft Server 2003, Exchange, a SQL Server database, and a SharePoint 2007 collaboration system in support of construction services for land purchase and development, site and municipal approvals, financing assistance, and selection of subcontractors and suppliers.

Rockford is using a number of somewhat unique software features from Hifn. For example, using the iSCSI system’s integrated, automated backup feature enabled Rockford to eliminate the need for a separate backup server. The company attached a tape library to the SCSI port of the Swarm 3200 and disk-to-disk snapshots (which are done internally on the Swarm array) are automatically backed up to tape. Rockford uses Hifn’s management software to create snapshots and partitions.

Hifn is also known for the built-in encryption on the Swarm appliances, although Rockford has not yet implemented that functionality. However, Partridge does plan to use encryption, for security purposes, when the firm rolls out a remote replication application later this year.

In addition to the consolidation benefits that came from the iSCSI-virtualization combo, Partridge notes that Rockford was able to eliminate its off- line storage and lengthy restore times, while also eliminating the risks associated with offline storage. The other key benefits were a “huge” reduction in both hard costs and time compared to Rockford’s previous server-storage configuration, and better data protection. -DS

Intense Lighting: iSCSI+NAS+FC

Intense Lighting is a small lighting manufacturer and retailer based in Anaheim, CA. The company recently moved from dual networks-one for each of its warehouse locations-to a single network. And, in the process, the company moved from server-based DAS to an iSCSI SAN.

As Intense Lighting’s IT manager, Josh Huisken was on the hunt for an easy-to-manage storage system that could support his capacity growth.

“One of the issues we faced was that we had five servers with direct-attached RAID storage. If I had to grow my array I would have to reformat a whole server, which meant a couple of days of downtime,” says Huisken. “And looking ahead, we’re bringing on a bar-coding system for online inventory and implementing a paperless imaging system in the next few months. There is no way that would have worked out with my current DAS arrays. I would have had to hire a part-time person if I didn’t move to networked storage.”

Huisken did his shopping the way many small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) do: He went Web browsing. “We’re an HP shop so we were looking at their StorageWorks offerings online, but after reading about NetApp’s StoreVault and looking at the specifications online I saw that it would take care of my issues,” he says.

The StoreVault S500 appliance supports NAS, iSCSI SAN, and Fibre Channel SAN connectivity in the same array. The S500 runs NetApp’s Data ONTAP operating system, which can be accessed through the StoreVault Manager GUI. The S500 takes advantage of the snapshot capabilities of Data ONTAP to provide 250 snapshot images for backups and uses NetApp’s SnapRestore tool for data recovery.

Intense Lighting ditched its server storage, merged its networks, and put the S500 in place as the cornerstone of its storage infrastructure.

The move to an iSCSI SAN has given Huisken the freedom to change the way he manages and builds his entire IT environment.

Josh Huisken
IT manager Intense Lighting

“We can now migrate our data off the servers and rely less on DAS arrays. From now on I can just order servers with two hard drives for the operating systems and connect them to the S500 for storage,” says Huisken. However, offsetting the cost of servers may be a moot point as Intense Lighting begins to move to virtual machines. “We probably won’t even buy any new servers because we’re going to be rolling out VMware. All you need is the virtual machine software and the iSCSI storage,” he says. -KK

House of LaRose: Disaster recovery

House of LaRose is a wholesale distributor of Anheuser-Busch products headquartered in Brecksville, OH. The company sells, merchandises, markets, and delivers a variety of beer and other beverage products to more than 6,000 retail outlets across northeast Ohio. This amounts to approximately 12 million cases of beer a year.

In December 2004, House of LaRose merged its two mid-sized facilities into a $30 million, 300,000-square-foot distribution center. In 2005, the company embarked on a two-year disaster-recovery project, creating a second site for replication purposes.

Dan Brinegar, a software specialist and IT administrator at House of LaRose, says he searched far and wide for a cost-effective way to move data to his second site, evaluating both Fibre Channel and iSCSI products from a myriad of vendors, but, in the end, an iSCSI implementation featuring replication and data-protection tools from FalconStor Software fit the bill.

Dan Brinegar
IT Administrator House of LaRose

Brinegar says pricing was a major factor in the decision: “Cost was a concern. Fibre Channel cards and switches aren’t cheap. Fibre Channel would have worked and it has [performance] advantages, but we found that iSCSI could handle what we needed.” Given that House of LaRose also had high-end Catalyst switches from Cisco in place, iSCSI became a no-brainer.

The data from all of Brinegar’s application and database servers was previously kept on DAS. Now it is protected locally and remotely by FalconStor’s IPStor CDP (continuous data protection) platform in an iSCSI SAN.

The IPStor CDP solution consists of FalconStor’s IPStor software, with both SAN and NAS storage provisioning capabilities, running on a 4TB storage appliance. FalconStor’s host-based DiskSafe and FileSafe software replicates all data to an IPStor platform for centralized data protection. Finally, FalconStor’s IPStor ZeroImpact Backup Enabler is used on a nightly basis to archive data to tape. The result is a consolidated storage infrastructure. “It’s a packaged solution that is also customizable enough to allow me to do anything I need,” says Brinegar. “It’s basically a ‘set-and-forget’ solution.”

One of House of LaRose’s primary concerns is backing up its NetWare system, which incorporates proprietary applications such as customer, product, and accounting databases. FalconStor’s FileSafe software was configured to run on NetWare, with the data mirrored to the IPStor appliance with snapshots taken every four hours. The company uses DiskSafe to back up to disk, do bare- metal restores, and pull multiple files off an image.

On the database end, the IPStor CDP solution is synchronized with House of LaRose’s Softeon ELITE warehouse management system, Oracle 10g running on Windows Server 2003, Microsoft SQL Server 2000, Oracle 9i, a voicemail-based ordering system, and Exchange 5.5, along with Windows NT 4.0 domain and FTP servers. IPStor CDP allows Brinegar to take up to 256 snapshots per LUN. In House of LaRose’s case, the solution is configured to take scheduled snapshots of these databases every two hours, along with real-time continuous journaling of changes to data.

Brinegar says his storage infrastructure will eventually allow him to move into a virtual world. “Now that FalconStor has a snapshot agent for VMware it allows us to look at iSCSI for virtual servers as we build out our environment,” says Brinegar. -KK

Forrester Research: iSCSI vs. Fibre Channel

By Kevin Komiega
Forrester Research recently released a report titled “iSCSI vs. Fibre Channel: Favorable economics makes iSCSI worthy of serious consideration,” and Andrew Reichman, an analyst with Forrester, says that comparing Fibre Channel to iSCSI is a difficult task. “It’s tough to say that one product or implementation is [better than] another implementation whether it’s Fibre Channel vs. iSCSI or even Fibre Channel vs. Fibre Channel. What it comes down to is you have to measure your application requirements and determine which is the best fit for your environment,” he says.

The main argument for iSCSI over Fibre Channel has always been cost. Reichman says that argument still holds true. “iSCSI components are still much cheaper than Fibre Channel components, even with NICs or TOE cards. And server vendors are even talking about integrating iSCSI TOE cards in their servers. That will be valuable because when companies install their own HBAs [host bus adapters] it tends to be a big source of errors and downtime,” says Reichman.

According to Forrester, iSCSI HBAs are still roughly half the price of their Fibre Channel counterparts. And Reichman adds that the cost of switch ports and cabling for iSCSI can be as little as one-eighth the price of similar Fibre Channel gear.

Reichman does not see much iSCSI adoption for critical enterprise-class, high-performance applications, but in the SMB space iSCSI is being used for virtually all applications.

However, Reichman says there are a lot of internal obstacles to adoption of iSCSI within many organizations. “There are political and religious barriers to the adoption of iSCSI. The religious argument is the preconceived notion that Fibre Channel is for the enterprise and iSCSI is not. It’s tough to disprove that idea because it’s not easy to simulate production workloads in a lab,” says Reichman. “The politics comes into play because sometimes when you go with an iSCSI SAN [the storage team] loses control and budget if the organization already has a network team. Those barriers could be an issue for a company that is dug in with Fibre Channel.”

Reichman believes the future of storage area networking lies with Ethernet. “With 10Gbps Ethernet and a proper architecture there is no reason that iSCSI will not be enterprise-ready for OLTP applications. Right now, another barrier to adoption is that there are not a lot of good blueprints out there. There is a perception that iSCSI SANs are just plug-and-play, which causes a lot of issues. But if you separate an iSCSI SAN from the LAN you remove the burden of network chattiness and improve the performance. In that scenario it’s possible that you could see iSCSI adoption improve and the technology become more enterprise-ready.”

Reichman says that server virtualization is also a catalyst for iSCSI adoption, but that vendors could do a better job of making the iSCSI-virtualization connection. “VMware has not done a good job of identifying the best practices for storage, whether it is with iSCSI, Fibre Channel, or NFS. They really haven’t taken a stance,” says Reichman. “There is a lot of chaos within the VMware technology when it comes to storage.”


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  • This article was originally published on January 01, 2008