For some time, the storage community has been flirting with iSCSI. But there have definitely been starts and stops -- notably when IBM pulled an iSCSI-based product that it deemed to have been too far ahead of the market.
But all that looks likely to change soon. First, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) recently ratified iSCSI. Second, and probably more important, Microsoft has jumped in with both feet, offering a free driver which will deliver iSCSI support for Windows client and server environments. It will be generally available in June.
"With Microsoft developing an iSCSI driver – well – they are 'blessing' the technology," says Dianne McAdam, an analyst with Data Mobility Group. Not only should that accelerate sales but it will move the market for SANs in a new direction. "Microsoft plays in the low to middle end market and those are the companies that would find iSCSI a less expensive alternative to Fibre Channel," she says.
"This will propel the market chop chop," enthuses Steve Duplessie, co-founder of the Enterprise Storage Group. "If its there, people will play with it," he says. "Once they play with it, they will figure out that they can now extend the benefits they got from the Fibre Channel SAN throughout all the servers in the place, not just the eight big ones," he adds. He predicts that for applications that aren't performance sensitive, users will find consolidation advantages. But for those that really need performance, a TCP offload engine (TOE) will be more or less mandatory.
Duplessie says he does not think the improved fortunes of iSCSI will negatively affect the Fibre Channel market for the foreseeable future. Indeed, he predicts that it will strengthen the "value of the block storage network to the masses."
"I love it: It will force interoperability, drive down costs, and open up the market," he adds.
Arun Taneja, an independent storage analyst, agrees the Microsoft announcement "is huge for the iSCSI market."
"This is the kind of event that makes the market wheels spin," he adds. Taneja says now the alignment of forces all seem set to kick iSCSI into high gear. Those forces include the finalization of the spec, the fact that plenty of TOE engines are available, a number of iSCSI-specific products are hitting the market, and that Microsoft's iSCSI driver is available as a standard part of the company's operating system releases. "The mass market for iSCSI can begin," he says.
Like Duplessie, despite his bullishness about iSCSI, Taneja does not see its growth significantly impacting the Fibre Channel market -- at least not in the near term. "One could argue that ultimately both solutions are vying for the same dollar, [but] I don't think so," he says. Instead, Taneja believes iSCSI will appeal to the SAN newbie, while Fibre Channel will continue to draw strength from its traditional data center market. "Once iSCSI grows up, there could an overlap but nor for now," he says.
Still, according to Gartner Dataquest, by 2006 iSCSI will connect nearly 1.5 million servers to SANs — more than any competing technology. In a statement Gartner Group chief analyst James Opfer said, "Operating system support for the iSCSI specification will facilitate deployment of interoperable storage products. These products will meet the needs of customers for whom connectivity and familiarity with IP are of paramount importance."
"We do not view iSCSI as a replacement for Fibre Channel or any other current storage technology," says Zane Adam, director of Product Development and Marketing for Microsoft's Enterprise Storage Division. "iSCSI complements existing storage solutions — companies that already have deployed Fibre Channel SANS are not going to rip them out and replace them with iSCSI. But if an enterprise has two or more separate Fibre Channel SANs in operation, iSCSI is the perfect low cost solution to connect these storage islands."
Microsoft's iSCSI initiator package, which will be available in June as a Web download at no charge, supports Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional (client) and Server, Windows XP client, and the upcoming Windows Server 2003 family of products.
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About the author: Alan Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, MA.