Alacritech Initiates iSCSI Race

Tests show its IP HBA faster than Intel's or Adaptec's, but this race may not go to the swiftest

March 2, 2004

3 Min Read
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Alacritech Inc. is counting on speed to give its iSCSI host bus adapter a foothold -- or should we say TOEhold? -- among early small-to-medium business (SMB) IP storage adopters.

Alacritech today announced an iSCSI HBA designed to accelerate performance for Microsoft Corp.'s (Nasdaq: MSFT) iSCSI software initiator, which itself accelerated a drive among vendors to adopt iSCSI solutions last year (see Microsoft Sparks iSCSI Liftoff).

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), EqualLogic Inc., FalconStor Software Inc. (Nasdaq: FALC), Intransa Inc., McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDTA), and Sanrad Inc. have certified Alacritechs HBA to work with their IP products.

Alacritech is mostly concerned with Microsoft’s blessing, though. Product marketing director Joe Gervais says Alacritech is counting on Microsoft to push iSCSI adoption this year, especially in the SMB market. “Microsoft is all over iSCSi in a way they’ve never been over Fibre Channel,” he says.

Microsoft released its iSCSI initiator software driver that supports Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows Server 2003 last June. That development helped iSCSI pick up momentum after a few slow years in which it failed to live up to early hype (see Microsoft Blesses iSCSI Hardware, iSCSI Gets Go-Ahead and Panel: iSCSI Clear for Takeoff).Adaptec Inc. (Nasdaq: ADPT), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), and Alacritech use a TCP/IP Offload Engine (TOE) to remove one of the problems of iSCSI -- performance degradation caused by extra server cycles needed to process the TCP/IP stack. Alacritech is the first to do it through Microsoft’s software initiator.

Alactritech claims its HBA had higher transaction rates than Adaptec's or Intel's products in a report Alacritech commissioned from Veritest.

Intel product manager Travis Vigil counters that Alacritech’s emphasis on speed is misguided in this instance. “With iSCSI, our focus is on ease of use and robustness,” he says. “If we are to focus on speeds and feeds, iSCSI would always lose out to Fibre Channel.” Vigil says Intel’s use of Microsoft’s iSCSI initiator services rather than the software initiator makes for more stable performance and better resource management.

Adaptec network storage marketing manager Tar Thirumalai contends that Adaptec’s card makes for easier management of multiple servers. He says Adaptec will stress interoperability with Windows more when Microsoft introduces a new interface -- codenamed Chimney -- next year that allows multi-threading of the TCP/IP stack and eases the need of offload engines.

Data Mobility Group partner Dianne McAdam says Alacritech’s use of Microsoft’s initiator and speed advantage should help it win acceptance among SMBs where the focus is more on simplicity and Windows. “It’s important to SMBs because they’re all using Microsoft and only Microsoft,” she says.Alacritech prices its HBA at $600, around $60 to $100 less than competing products from Adaptec and Intel. Even at that price, any iSCSI HBA needs to provide a significant performance gain over standard network interface cards (NICs).

“You don’t need an iSCSI HBA to attach iSCSI storage to a server; you can use a standard NIC card,” McAdam says. “But a NIC only works up to a point. When the number of iSCSI requests exceeds available server cycles, the server will either need to be upgraded or another server will need to be added to handle the load. Since the cost of an additional server can far exceed the cost an iSCSI HBA card, it may make better to sense to go with the iSCSI HBA from the get-go.”

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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