iSCSI for everybody

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For the longest time, the storage industry positioned iSCSI as either a low-end solution for small businesses or a departmental technology for larger companies. But the technology is proving more versatile, with products emerging to fit nearly every need.

Econnergy Energy in Spring Valley, NY, is a great example of a business that's stretching the potential of iSCSI throughout its environment. It recently purchased EqualLogic's PS3600X array with serial-attached SCSI (SAS) drives to support SQL Server and Oracle databases, and VMware ESX Servers. The company also bought an EqualLogic PS100E SATA II-based array for use as a disaster recovery target. EqualLogic's storage is priced at approximately $20,000 for 2TB or $30,000 fully redundant. To balance the cost of the EqualLogic arrays, Econnergy stores all of its archival data, including PDFs of customer invoices, on cheaper Linux-based boxes running iSCSI software from Open-E GmbH.

"The two [products] serve completely different needs," says Steve Schroeder, Econnergy's director of network operations. "The EqualLogic serves our high-end SQL, Oracle and ESX needs, whereas Open-E is driven by how much junk we need to save," he says. ThinkCP Technologies, an Irvine, CA-based systems integrator, built Econnergy a system using Open-E for less than what it would have cost the company to assemble it in-house.

Dirt cheap, do-it-yourself iSCSI is popping up everywhere, according to John Matze, founder and CEO of iSCSI startup Siafu Software in Poway, CA. Matze is also one of the original architects of the Internet Engineering Task Force's iSCSI standard.

"We're going to see the market split into intelligent, expensive iSCSI and cheap, dumb iSCSI," says Matze. There are plenty of people who just want a "bit bucket"--some cheap storage without the level of sophistication of today's products. They don't need snapshot or encryption, just RAID plus iSCSI connectivity, he says.

Companies like Infortrend, iStor Networks and Promise Technology are starting to flood the market with these kinds of products, notes Matze. "D-Link is shipping boatloads of iStor-based iSCSI RAID boxes into the SMB [small- to medium-sized businesses] space ... It's cheap, fast as heck and brain-dead to operate," he says.

There might be even further segmentation in the market if Adaptec has its way. Mike DiMeglio, director of business development for the company's recently introduced OnTarget iSCSI software, says there's a middle ground between "low-cost, feature-poor RAID boxes and IP enterprise solutions," each of which he believes is a "narrower, smaller portion of the market."

Adaptec's OnTarget software, sold by systems integrators like Izon Technologies and Variel Technology, provides many of the features found in enterprise-class products, such as snapshots, all RAID levels, synchronous mirroring and wizard-driven management without the high-end price tag, claims the company.

"Our price is less than the EqualLogics of the world because they are adding margin to standard hardware," says Marty Turner, Adaptec's OnTarget product manager.

DiMeglio says the long-term question is whether these integrated iSCSI systems that run target software from companies like Adaptec and Microsoft on commodity hardware will eventually encroach on high-end systems. "We will need to add more reliability like active/active failover and improved performance like 10Gig [10Gb/sec Ethernet], but these could easily be added to the software products," he says.

Analysts say Hewlett-Packard's (HP's) StorageWorks All-in-One (AiO) box, which runs Microsoft's Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 and supports iSCSI and NAS, provides ease-of-management features and is affordable to most companies with 500 to 1,000 employees. Pricing for the HP AiO400, a 1U rack-mountable system with four SATA drive bays and 1TB of raw capacity, starts at $5,000.

Defending the high end, Eric Schott, EqualLogic's director of product management, argues that software products will always be dependent on the PC running them. "Adaptec might not support all the HP hot-plug features; for this you need HP drivers, not Adaptec, and you can't replace PC components while the system is still running," says Schott. EqualLogic says it has gone to great lengths to test its product. "The trade-off with systems that have to be integrated is that the reliability depends on the integrator testing and integrating it thoroughly, and that's not always the case," adds Schott.

Stephanie Balaouras, a senior analyst at Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research, argues that smaller companies actually need more intelligent storage because they don't have the in-house expertise to manage it. "They don't want to have to define RAID groups or carve LUNs," she says. "Of all the places in IT, storage is not the place to assemble components."

--Jo Maitland

This was first published in January 2007

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