Sneaky iSCSI Gathers Momentum

PALM DESERT, Calif. -- Momentum is growing for the technology that will drive storage technology onto IP-based networks, as a large group of startups and established vendors have backed a key storage networking standard called iSCSI (for SCSI over IP).

The standard, once considered a long-shot as a storage networking technology, still comes in several forms and isn't expected to be approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) until this summer. Yet this week several companies demonstrated an aggressive push into iSCSI territory, including networking and storage giants such as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM).

On Tuesday, the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), a non-profit industry group, announced plans to promote the standard. The group has more than 30 members, including not only Cisco and IBM but also Adaptec Inc., Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD), Emulex Corp. (Nasdaq: EMLX), Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HWP), Hitachi Ltd. (NYSE: HIT; Paris: PHA), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), QLogic Corp. (Nasdaq: QLGC), and Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW). Startups in the group include Cereva Networks Inc., Nishan Systems, and SAN Valley

Several of these companies are also supporting another storage specification, Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP), but their concurrent inclusion in the iSCSI camp demonstrates that the even the Fibre Channel heavies, such as Brocade and QLogic, have chosen not to ignore the standard (see Dueling SAN Specs Demo'd at Show).

The big draw for iSCSI is that it allows servers to connect to Ethernet networks using their existing high-speed SCSIs (Small Computer Systems Interfaces), eliminating the distance limitations of storage connections without requiring software applications to be rewritten. This opens up the potential to connect disk drives directly to broadband networks.

Because of the need for packet processing and routing, IP-based networks are not considered as efficient as storage networks built with Fibre Channel switches, but experts believe the growing presence of gigabit Ethernet links is likely to drive storage networks onto IP networks. The technology is being pitched as a more affordable alternative to higher-end Fibre Channel-based SANs built by companies like Brocade, McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDT), and QLogic.

"We have a lot of customers that are looking over the fence at pooled storage SANs, and this will help open up the market," says Paul Mattson, business line manager of IBM's storage networking business storage systems group, of the iSCSI movement. "You can build SANs that have mid-range capabilities and you can build them out of IP stuff."

Cisco emphasized the use of iSCSI in its storage strategy announcement on Monday (see Cisco's SAN Blast), saying the standard could be used by service providers to build storage connections over optical networks. Mark Cree, general manager of Cisco's Storage Router Business unit, said that as the performance of connections using gigabit Ethernet is catching up with that of Fibre Channel, growth in IP-based SANs will increase.

"As gigabit Ethernet NICs come close to wire speeds, you come closer to the performance of 1-Gbit/s Fibre Channel," said Cree. "We've been pleasantly surprised at the performance."

Fibre Channel supporters, however, have long pointed out that their standard was specifically developed for storage networking and is inherently more efficient. Indeed, networks requiring high-availability storage networks are likely to stick with Fibre Channel-based SAN technology for some time.

That hasn't slowed the startup and venture community's ballooning interest in iSCSI. Companies such Nishan Systems and SAN Valley are developing hardware and software products for IP-based storage networks based on iSCSI.

-- R. Scott Raynovich, Executive Editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com
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