Vendors pull TOEs from offload market

Three vendors have recently left the market for offload engines that speed the transmission of iSCSI storage traffic over TCP/IP networks. But that's not stopping at least five other vendors, including major players such as Adaptec Inc., QLogic Corp. and Intel Corp., from pursuing the still-young market.

Three vendors have recently left the market for offload engines that speed the transmission of iSCSI storage traffic over TCP/IP networks. But that's not stopping at least five other vendors, including major players such as Adaptec Inc., QLogic Corp. and Intel Corp., from pursuing the still-young market.

Several of the survivors say they are seeing healthy increases in demand for TCP/IP offload engines (TOE), which take some of the network processing load off server CPUs. This in turn allows customers to run more applications with fewer servers. Those TOE vendors declined to give sales numbers, though, and several major hardware vendors are mum about their plans for TOE technology that they acquired from failed startups.

A TOE processes network TCP/IP traffic that otherwise would be handled by the CPU in a server linked to the network. An iSCSI TOE also offloads processing of the iSCSI storage protocol, a protocol that allows the SCSI commands used in high-performance Fibre Channel SANs to be transmitted over lower cost, more familiar TCP/IP networks.

I don't see their withdrawal from the market as a problem with the concept of iSCSI TOEs
Dianne McAdam
Senior analystData Mobility Group
Cross Country Healthcare Inc., a provider of temporary health care staff in Boca Raton, Fla., is using iSCSI HBAs from Adaptec for a SAN that supports key applications and stores images of nursing licenses and other documentation. With the iSCSI offload capabilities of the HBAs, it takes 3% or less of server compute power to process storage network traffic, compared to 10% to 15% for other HBAs, said Mike MacNeill, director of technical operations at Cross Country. This frees up enough power for applications that the company has reduced the costs of adding new servers by 10% to 20%, he said.

"We're seeing a lot of demand worldwide for iSCSI, and a pretty good amount" of demand for iSCSI offload products, said Joe Gervais, director of product marketing at Alacritech Inc. in San Jose, Calif. He cited "very strong demand" for the Alacritech Server and Storage Accelerator that began shipping in March, but an Alacritech spokeswoman said the vendor has not yet received sales figures from distributors through whom the cards are sold.

When Simple Tech Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif., last month closed Xiran, a division that had focused on iSCSI TOE, it cited slower than expected adoption of iSCSI. However, several analysts and other observers agreed that iSCSI demand is growing and that the failure of several TOEs vendors doesn't doom the category. Market researcher International Data Corp. declined to release its latest iSCSI market forecasts because they are being updated, but "they definitely show a very healthy iSCSI market over the next five to six years," said Robert Gray, research vice president for storage systems.

Dianne McAdam, senior analyst at the Data Mobility Group in Nashua, N.H., said she sees greater strength for iSCSI now that several vendors are or soon will be shipping products. While Xiran failed to capture "mind share," she said, "I don't see their withdrawal from the market as a problem with the concept of iSCSI TOEs."

In April, Santa Clara, Calif.-based graphics vendor NVIDIA Corp. announced its acquisition of TOE technology developed by iReady Corp., and last October Fibre Channel HBA vendor Emulex Corp. acquired the technology of Trebia Networks Inc. NVIDIA could not be reached for comment. Mike Kane, director of product management at Emulex, said the firm is "continuing to invest in this technology in order to be positioned as the market rolls out" but would not say when, or if, Emulex would ship a TOE product.

Another vendor, Silverback Systems Inc. in Campbell, Calif., has just released its second TOE product, the ISNAP (IP Storage Network Processor) 2110 to its OEMs, whom the company declined to identify. Silverback got a boost in April with an investment of an undisclosed amount from the Intel Communications Fund. QLogic Corp., a major vendor of Fibre Channel HBAs, announced availability of its iSCSI HBAs in June.

Vendors are split over whether servers or storage targets (such as arrays and network switches) benefit more from TOEs. Silverback spokesperson Ron Kroesen predicts nearly all storage targets need offload because they have less powerful processors than servers, and that each storage target must provide data to multiple servers. Alacritech's Gervais argues that servers will also need offload as higher network speeds make it harder for server CPUs to keep up.

"What I like about iSCSI TOEs is that they offload server processing cycles and can guarantee (with the right product) good performance without using up server processing cycles," said McAdam. "Server cycles are best allocated to supporting mission-critical applications, not processing TCP/IP services."

About the author: Robert L. Scheier is a freelance writer in Boylston, Mass. who frequently writes about storage. He can be reached at rscheier@charter.net.

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