Microsoft Sparks iSCSI Liftoff

Microsoft's Windows iSCSI initiator has 1,500 users taking another look at the fledgling technology

July 15, 2003

4 Min Read
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A year after some declared iSCSI dead -- or at least deeply sleeping -- the technology has started to pick up momentum in recent months (see iSCSI in Exile).

In a move that has significantly stoked the iSCSI embers, Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) two weeks ago started offering free downloads of its iSCSI initiator for the latest versions of Windows (see Microsoft Delivers iSCSI for Windows).

Zane Adam, director of product management and marketing in Microsoft's Enterprise Storage Division, says that more than 1,500 people downloaded the free initiator in the first week, and "iSCSI" is currently one of the top 100 search terms on the Microsoft site.

"We wanted to be sure that when customers deploy IP SANs with iSCSI that there are no interoperability problems," Adam says. "Because we're supporting it, and because we launched the initiator, it will help enable more adoption of iSCSI."

Of course, 1,500 downloads doesn't sound like a lot, coming from the Redmond behemoth, and it's worth noting that the iSCSI driver isn't even currently in the top 50 downloads on Microsoft's downloads site.But analysts say the number is substantial, considering that Microsoft's iSCSI partners already had copies of the software in their labs. In addition, the average consumer isn't likely to download an iSCSI initiator just to test it out, so the majority of the downloads were probably by businesses interested in testing the new technology.

"It's extremely significant," says Enterprise Storage Group Inc. analyst Nancy Marrone. "This is one of the key things that the iSCSI technology has needed for adoption. I think we'll see a significant ramp in adoption over the next year."

The iSCSI protocol, which sends block-level SCSI commands over IP networks, has long been viewed as a cheaper, less complex alternative to Fibre Channel since it allows companies to leverage their existing IP networks and claims to offer the broad interoperability that Fibre Channel has so desperately been lacking. Microsoft's new initiator is a big step toward complete iSCSI interoperability, observers say. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) officially approved the iSCSI specification as a proposed standard in February (see iSCSI Gets Go-Ahead).

Beyond the obvious importance of Microsoft throwing its Goliath weight behind the emerging technology, the move is especially significant for the small to medium-sized businesses, remote offices, and workgroup environments, which are the most likely candidates to embrace iSCSI.

"The majority of these environments are very heavily populated with Microsoft," says Marrone, pointing out that many potential users have been scared off in the past by proprietary iSCSI initiators that only worked with proprietary iSCSI hardware targets. "Now it's much more likely that you can use anybody's target with the Microsoft initiator."So, how does the Microsoft iSCSI code stack up? While users would probably latch on to any initiator Microsoft released, end users and vendors that have tested the new software say the technology is impressive.

"We've done some benchmarks on throughput... and on an average, Microsoft is pretty much at the top," says Ari Bose, CIO of networking vendor 3Com Corp. (Nasdaq: COMS). "And it's vendor-agnostic, as long as you're on Microsoft's operating system. That's pretty important... Our data center is a very heterogeneous environment." [Ed. note: Uhhhh, right... Microsoft will support any vendor you like, as long as it's Microsoft.]

3Com has been testing the initiator for the past three and a half months, Bose says, and plans a global rollout of iSCSI to its data centers within the next couple of weeks, although the company will hold off on using the new technology for its most mission-critical data for now. Implementing an IP SAN using Microsoft's iSCSI drivers has allowed 3Com to consolidate the number of servers serving the Americas from 14 to two, according to Bose.

Meanwhile, other IP SAN vendors are also thrilled with the Microsoft initiator. John Joseph, VP of marketing at EqualLogic Inc., says he's very impressed with the software's performance, although he says it's a bit too early to recommend one initiator over another. "It's an excellent piece of work," he says. "People are enthused over the quality and performance of the product."

Alacritech Inc., which offers a TCP offload engine (TOE) iSCSI adapter that supports the Microsoft initiator, doesn't hesitate to recommend it over other Windows iSCSI initiators from third-party vendors. Among others, for example, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) had written its own iSCSI stack for Windows (see Win2003 Zooms on Alacritech)."In comparison to other initiators out there, the integration is far more seamless," says Matt Robinson, the company's technical marketing engineer. "What Microsoft is providing is out-of-the-box interoperability. It's plug-and-play instead of plug-and-pray."

The Microsoft iSCSI initiator can be downloaded here. It's available for Windows XP Service Pack (SP) 1, Windows 2000 SP3, and Windows Server 2003.

Eugénie Larson, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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