Is EMC Overshooting on iSCSI?

Symmetrix iSCSI options are a vote of confidence, but it's curious EMC didn't start with Clariion

July 30, 2003

4 Min Read
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Tomorrow, EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) is expected to announce new iSCSI options for its Symmetrix DMX family, giving the emerging IP storage networking technology yet another high-profile supporter delivering products to the market (see EMC Flexes DMXes).

But analysts say it's puzzling that EMC is bringing out iSCSI for its high-end storage family rather than the midrange CX Clariion systems, where the proposition of attached lower-end servers to SAN storage over IP would be more attractive. Even though EMC is expected to cut the entry-level pricing on the DMX 800 to around $280,000, that's still well above what most consider to be the sweet spot for iSCSI.

"The curious thing about this is that EMC's first iSCSI array is Symmetrix, not Clariion, which would be a better fit from the standpoint of the channel," says John Webster, senior analyst and founder of Data Mobility Group.

Adds Tony Prigmore, senior analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc.: "I doubt anyone in the industry really expected EMC's first iSCSI platform to be DMX."

A new four-port controller board for the Symmetrix family will allow users to provide block-level iSCSI access to disk storage via Gigabit Ethernet. The option is designed to let customers connect low-end servers to the SAN without needing to install and manage more costly Fibre Channel host bus adapters (HBAs).But at least initially, adoption of iSCSI for Symmetrix will probably be limited, writes Laura Conigliaro, an analyst with Goldman Sachs & Co., in a note to investors today. "We doubt that iSCSI will show up much at the high end as a substitute for Fibre Channel, although it could, at some point, find some niches," she writes. "More likely is that it will increase its presence in the low end and midrange over the next year or two."

Indeed, EMC may be years ahead of customers in delivering iSCSI support for data-center storage systems, analysts say.

"We've found that large enterprises have an interest in testing iSCSI, but even successful pilots won't translate into significant demand for iSCSI-only solutions for several more years," says Rick Villars, analyst at IDC. He adds that any direct financial impact by iSCSI on Fibre Channel vendors won't be noticeable until 2006 at the earliest.

All the same, EMC's move is clearly a vote of confidence for iSCSI, a protocol that provides block-level over standard IP networking equipment (see iSCSI Gets Go-Ahead). Its support follows product rollouts by other major vendors, including Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), and Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP) (see Panel: iSCSI Clear for Takeoff, Microsoft Sparks iSCSI Liftoff, Cisco & IBM Jam on SANs, Cisco Implants IP in SANs, and NetApp Blitzes on iSCSI).

"For iSCSI uptake this absolutely helps," says Webster. "Data-center storage admins could now get the feeling that it's OK to jump in and try this iSCSI thing out."In a broad sense, EMC's support for iSCSI is hardly surprising. The company has maintained that it would adopt the technology once "customer demand" was there [ed. note: even, apparently, if such demand is limited]. Moreover, David Black, a senior technologist at EMC, is also the co-chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)'s IP Storage working group (see iSCSI Spec Set and EMC Joins iSCSI Party).

It's possible that EMC is offering iSCSI for the Symmetrix now in order to forestall customers from deploying an alternative approach that could cut it out of the equation: iSCSI-to-FC connectivity in the SAN itself.

For example, Cisco's IP Storage Services module for the MDS 9000 family of Fibre Channel switches allows Ethernet-attached servers access to any existing FC storage. IP switch startups like Nishan Systems Inc., StoneFly Networks Inc., and Sanrad, offer similar capabilities. By offering native iSCSI connections on Symmetrix, EMC seems to be trying to obviate the need to install an additional IP storage networking device in front of the SAN -- and therefore minimize the chance that customers will migrate away from EMC storage.

EMC, which markets itself as a storage technology leader, may also have wanted to close the mindshare gap with NetApp -- which charged out of the gate with iSCSI support immediately after the IETF ratified the spec. Whether or not many users will actually find an iSCSI-enabled Symmetrix useful at this point, EMC wants to assure the market that it's ready to start the IP SAN engine.

Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and Switch

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