Panel Prompts iSCSI Love-In

Early adopters were attracted by savings but found a few pleasant surprises

April 29, 2004

4 Min Read
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NEW YORK -- What a difference a year makes. A panel of iSCSI early adopters held forth on performance and security this week during a talk at the Storage Decisions conference here. And iSCSI vendors -- who, a few months ago, were behaving more like public penitents -- felt it safe to show their faces in public afterwards(see iSCSI's Second Act and IP Rising).

Despite the accolades, though, the panel made clear iSCSI isn't a full-on replacement for high-end Fibre Channel.

Users Michael Davies of Sawtel Inc., Thomas Reynolds of Idenix Pharmaceuticals, and Ken Walters of PBS, all said they'd implemented iSCSI primarily for economic reasons and were pleasantly surprised with its performance, manageability, and security features.

I needed a cost-effective way to get storage to my blade centers,” Walters says. “iSCSI let me do that. With Fibre Channel, I would have had to add cards to my blades.”

Walters wanted to consolidate the direct-attached storage connected to most of his servers. He was running a Fibre Channel SAN for his “heavy lifting” applications, but decided on StoneFly Networks Inc. Storage Concentrators to consolidate his DAS. Given that Walters's IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) blade servers had integral Gigabit Ethernet capabilities, iSCSI seemed to make sense. Walters began tests in 2002 and an incremental rollout of iSCSI last year.Indenix’s Reynolds says he faced the same situation with Dell Computer Corp. (Nasdaq: DELL) blades. He received a cold call from a LeftHand Networks Inc. salesman. “I had never heard of IP SAN and I never heard of LeftHand either,” he says. "I wanted high availability and no planned downtime. I wanted to do things you associate with high-end SANS at a price that made sense for us.”

Davies says Sawtel, which provides satellite bandwidth connectivity in all parts of the world, had to find a cheaper way to set up storage in order to keep its prices competitive. He says he installed Adaptec Inc. (Nasdaq: ADPT) iSCSI cards for about one-sixth the cost of Fibre Channel.

The three report their IP SANs were easy to set up and manage, and performance has been no problem, even with standard NIC cards instead of more expensive TCP offload engines (TOEs). [Ed. note: That might explain why vendors selling TOEs are struggling. See iReady to Go, Nvidia Buys iReady, and Trebia Croaks.]

“I don’t think it took twenty minutes to set up,” Reynolds says. “Performance has been above expectations.” Davies adds: “The biggest surprise is how well it fits our needs. It’s easy to manage; you don’t have to have special [Fibre Channel] skills.”

Walters says he was leery at first. “My background is in database performance tuning, so I was worried about performance. I spent two or three months testing it in my enterprise before rolling it out. Performance was more than adequate.”Two key concerns remain: security and the ability to tackle high-end, transaction-oriented applications.

All three panelists say they isolate data on their IP SANs on virtual LANs inside the data center to safeguard against outsiders. And Walters feels one needs to be more vigilant with iSCSI than with Fibre Channel storage. “There are more people out there with IP hacking abilities and tools than with Fibre Channel,” he says.

None of these happy early adopters is using his IP SAN for high-end transaction applications, either. So far, the technology doesn't purport to be ready for speedy high-volume retrieval.

Still, the vendors seem pleased with iSCSI's progress, and some even challenge the above complaints. “It’s somewhat different than a year ago,” says Peter Wang, CTO of iSCSI storage startup Intransa Inc. “When we talked to people last year, the first thing they did was challenge performance. Then they found out performance wasn’t that different for a lot of applications. Then it was, ‘What about security?’ Well, security really isn’t that different than with Fibre Channel either.”

Ken Steinhardt, director of technology analysis for EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC), says he expects iSCSI to coexist with Fibre Channel in SANs for years to come, since iSCSI is good for handling lots of smaller storage tasks, while Fibre Channel remains a high-volume workhorse. “The differences between the two are more application centered than hardware centered. I don’t think most enterprises will be just one or the other,” he maintains.EMC offers iSCSI connectivity on its high-end Symmetrix SANs, and Steinhardt says it will have it soon for midrange Clariion systems (see B&S Insider Scopes IP SANs). Another vendor of Fibre Channel SAN gear that's selling iSCSI is Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP). IBM and Dell are said to be considering low-end iSCSI SAN systems.

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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