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Can iSCSI crack the enterprise?

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Server virtualization projects are also taking some of the shine off iSCSI. Data centers with hundreds or thousands of low-utilization servers see far greater benefit in consolidating them using software like VMware or Xen, or implementing blade servers. These options increase the number of servers connected to SANs, but allow them to share expensive FC resources like host bus adapters and switch ports. This vastly reduces the number of SAN connections needed, and diminishes the competitiveness of iSCSI, which touts savings based on its per-connection cost.

Many observers also blame enterprise storage vendors for the lack of interest, criticizing them for not pushing this low-cost alternative to their biggest customers. Although upstart storage vendors would love to play in the enterprise, sales and marketing executives at the major vendors say their iSCSI focus remains on smaller accounts. It could be a chicken-and-egg situation: Are vendors not pushing iSCSI to the enterprise because potential users don't want it, or is the lack of vendor support causing enterprise customers to ignore it? One thing is for certain: From a technical perspective, there's no lack of iSCSI support among enterprise storage products. Nearly every modern enterprise array supports iSCSI on an equal footing with FC, and development roadmaps show that iSCSI will continue to mature, supporting 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) in the next few years.

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iSCSI without the IP

A new horse has entered the enterprise IP storage race, and it has some serious backers. Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) can be thought of as iSCSI without the IP. It uses many elements of SCSI and FC (just like iSCSI), but doesn't include the familiar TCP/IP components. This promises excellent performance, especially on 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE), and is simpler for vendors to add to their products.

Kyle Fitze, SAN marketing director, StorageWorks Division at Hewlett-Packard Co., sees FCoE as a way to get better price performance out of the FC standard. "Ethernet is pervasive," he says. "If you have to pick just one protocol, Ethernet is a good bet as the standard for storage in the distant future, but FC and InfiniBand aren't going away any time soon."

Skipping IP takes out a few nice elements found in iSCSI, however. IPsec encryption is gone, of course, but because FCoE can't be routed over WAN links like iSCSI it might not be as necessary. The lack of IP will encourage implementers to keep FCoE on dedicated network segments, which is good news in terms of security, and might result in fewer turf wars between the network and storage administration groups. Many experts expect FCoE SANs to be virtually indistinguishable from current FC SANs in practice. Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at the StorageIO Group in Stillwater, MN, calls FCoE "a bridge to the future." He sees the protocol as extending FC to a new way of using Ethernet for storage...

This was first published in July 2007

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