NetConvergence recently became one of the more vocal proponents of IP-centric storage area networks (SANs), hoping to establish a quick lead in the emerging IP storage field. Unlike most of its competitors, NetConvergence is delivering products. Beta shipments began last year, and production shipments are expected early next year.

The Santa Clara, CA, startup’s approach is primarily focused on the use of software to create end-to-end IP SANs, which NetConvergence dubs “ips.” Company officials claim that their technology has no performance limitations and does not require protocol translation.

Based on the emerging iSCSI protocol standard being promoted by Cisco, IBM, and others (see InfoStor, June 2000, p. 1), NetConvergence plans to offer several critical components required to facilitate IP SANs. Part of the Matrix family of products, these will initially include:

  • An iSCSI gateway for moving data between current SCSI devices and IP via Gigabit Ethernet. Gateways linking IP to Fibre Channel and InfiniBand devices are also planned.
  • An iSCSI network interface card (NIC) that includes Gigabit Ethernet connections, on-board network processors, and iSCSI drivers.
  • iSCSI “data blades” for use in existing Gigabit Ethernet switches to provide SAN connectivity using installed base assets.

Although the company plans to deliver hardware devices, its key value-added contribution is a software layer that offloads the operating system, and is optimized for performance.

NetConvergence officials claim that their suite of software modules-along with the use of network processors from Motorola, IBM, and Intel-will allow NetConvergence to overcome all of the inherent TCP and IP performance limitations found today. These “packet speed enhancers” operate at full wire speed with little latency, and require little or no host CPU overhead contribution, according to NetConvergence officials.

NetConvergence is already shipping a beta version of its first product, The Matrix Integrated Storage Gateway (ISG). The Matrix ISG is a pre-standard iSCSI SAN gateway. (iSCSI is currently in the standards review process at the Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF.)

The Matrix ISG is designed to enable early adopters to deploy IP SANs based on the use of legacy SCSI peripherals and Gigabit Ethernet LANs for “off network” backup to tape. This solution will ultimately be adapted to full iSCSI compliance once the standard is finalized. UCLA’s Department of Computer Sciences has been a Matrix ISG beta site since December 1999, and is currently using the technology for 200GB daily backups.

NetConvergence has a vision to move the focus on IP SANs away from the transport and session layers up to the application layer, so that network-oriented applications can take full advantage of the storage services that SANs have been promising, but have yet to deliver. NetConvergence officials consider their company to be an intellectual property company providing many of the missing pieces in the emerging iSCSI SAN puzzle.

Last month, NetConvergence completed its second round of financing, raising $5 million from a group of investors led by Accton Technology Corp., a Taiwanese manufacturer of Ethernet networking hardware. Accton holds two board seats at NetConvergence.

Startups such as NetConvergence and others have already dissected the issues facing IP-based SANs and have begun to deliver software-hardware solutions that appear to overcome the much ballyhooed shortcomings of the IP approach to developing SAN infrastructures. With IP already the de facto standard across enterprises, it is clear why the networking community is starting to embrace this approach at the expense of Fibre Channel.

NetConvergence’s approach to building IP SAN infrastructures is very clean and practical. Network processors embedded in current Gigabit Ethernet and next-generation 10Gbps Ethernet NICs, coupled with modular software, may overcome the inherent latency and bandwidth limitations of TCP/IP.