iSCSI storage system innovation coming from SMB products

Don't look now, but a lot of the innovation in iSCSI storage systems is coming from midrange iSCSI vendors.

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A lot of the innovation in iSCSI storage systems is coming from midrange iSCSI vendors. We list some key points to help you determine if iSCSI is a fit for your organization.

Big enterprise storage iron has always hogged the data storage limelight. For many IT pros, the high end of the storage food chain -- with its soaring throughput rates, huge disk counts and stunning performance -- came to represent the entire storage market.

But times change, and that's no longer the case. If you've followed some of the storage industry's recent announcements and innovations, it's clear the emphasis has shifted to iSCSI storage features and to vendors pursuing a far different market than the traditional enterprise.

As I've noted before, the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) and small and medium-sized business (SMB) storage markets have become hotbeds of innovation for the industry. It hasn't gone unnoticed that vendors are delivering a greater breadth of features in their storage systems, with capabilities ranging from auto-tiering to WAN optimization and serious storage management.

Most of the innovation is coming with iSCSI storage system implementations. iSCSI now has an exceptional track record in this market, with EqualLogic and LeftHand paving the way for iSCSI's SMB/SME success. Meanwhile, the ability to do almost all storage operations in software, as well as deeply manipulate the TCP/IP-based I/O path, is giving vendors some serious room for innovation.

Let's take a look at a few examples.

American Megatrends Inc.'s (AMI) StorTrends. If you remember American Megatrends as a BIOS manufacturer, you might be surprised that it's also in the iSCSI array business. We recently did some hands-on testing of its 3400i array. While offering a traditional dual-controller architecture with drive scaling, AMI has also built in some interesting innovations. One is dynamic auto-tiering with a twist: rather than just auto-tier between disk speeds, it carves up 15K disks into three zones and optimizes data placement on the disk, effectively short-stroking to give the hottest data the best performance. The company has some secret sauce for replication, too. AMI has added WAN optimization for replicated data with deduplication and compression that runs on the storage controller itself. This is normally a pricey third-party offering.

NexGen Storage Inc. NexGen has performance-accelerated its storage system using a combination of flash technology and rotating disk. NexGen's approach involves parking all data on flash for maximum performance and then trickling cold data down to hard disk storage, while deduplicating the data to make the most of both storage tiers. But going beyond performance and capacity optimization, NexGen delivers a unique "Storage QoS" feature that guarantees certain levels of performance (IOPS) for a particular storage volume. Not many vendors in the iSCSI storage space can boast the performance or depth of storage interaction insight to make this happen. NexGen's innovative approach should let it take on more workloads without administrators worrying about overloading their storage system.

Scale Computing. Scale Computing started with a highly cost-effective scale-out iSCSI storage offering, including iSCSI and NAS, but recently turned its attention to "hyper-convergence." Using its scale-out architecture and the flexibility of iSCSI, it's built in a virtualization layer that allows virtual machines (VMs) to run on top of the storage nodes. iSCSI's flexibility has allowed Scale Computing to pull off nifty tricks inside of its scale-out clusters to keep everything looking like one seamless entity with easy VM access from any cluster node. The Scale Computing cluster can still be used as standard iSCSI or file storage, even while running VMs.

iSCSI is a mature storage technology today, and those lacking iSCSI experience may still have a few misconceptions about the technology. These key points might help in determining whether iSCSI is a fit for your organization.

  • iSCSI is a fully mature and extremely efficient protocol. There's often enough resident network interface card processing power and CPU cycles left over to make iSCSI performance adequate for almost any workload. And because it uses standard SCSI commands, you'll find some of the broadest support for new VMware features that are increasingly based on standard SCSI interactions.
  • Often, iSCSI can be deployed with better multipathing flexibility than other protocols, providing greater availability protection and bandwidth. It's the closest you'll get to a Fibre Channel (FC) SAN without FC.
  • iSCSI does require some design considerations. It's best to deploy iSCSI across dedicated switches that can isolate and protect your iSCSI SAN and allow you to effectively monitor traffic. Still, you probably won't need specialized storage aisles or other complexity -- the switches can sit top of rack or right next to your iSCSI gear.

iSCSI storage systems are currently setting the pace for fast innovation and new feature introduction. That level of innovation can make it challenging to do head-to-head comparisons. You should first set your goals for performance and scalability, and then look at the broad landscape of iSCSI features to make your wish list. With the wide variety of offerings on the market and rapid innovation, chances are there's an iSCSI vendor out there delivering a product that will help you cost-effectively extend the capabilities of your IT infrastructure.

About the author:
Jeff Boles is a senior analyst at Taneja Group

This was first published in December 2012

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