iSCSI: Learn it or be left behind

Thought you might get by without considering iSCSI storage? Think again. With continuous progress on the iSCSI protocol and steadily improving products, the technology is now gaining enterprise stature. Savvy users should prepare themselves now for iSCSI.

iSCSI: Learn it or be left behind

Two tech trends will give iSCSI storage yet another boost, so it may be time to brush up on your IP skills.

At the tail end of the Internet boom, I was working for a fly-by-night, storage-focused telecom company when I first heard about iSCSI. Given the growth of the Internet, a storage technology based on IP seemed a safe bet. Ethernet was becoming the global transport du jour, so iSCSI appeared to be a sure winner--networking leader Cisco Systems had gobbled up early iSCSI pioneer NuSpeed Internet Systems for $450 million in 2000.

But like many technologies from that era, iSCSI didn't live up to its early promise. Back in 2000, the protocol was fairly new and marginally stable products were extremely basic. I remember seeing a NuSpeed/Cisco box at Interop. It had one port for connecting to a server and another for connecting to a storage system. In other words, it was a basic protocol converter and little else. At the time, vendors of 16-port Fibre Channel (FC) switches probably laughed off these devices.

Since those early days of networked storage, there has been continuous progress on the iSCSI protocol and products have steadily improved. The problem with iSCSI now isn't the technology, but the industry hype surrounding it--headlines like "This is the year for iSCSI" or "iSCSI is ready for the enterprise."

Why all the propaganda? Because many users still believe iSCSI is a bit of a storage toy. Data center managers and enterprise storage professionals alike tend to dismiss iSCSI as one or more of the following:

  • An industry science project and not an enterprise-ready technology. They don't believe iSCSI has wide penetration or maturity, so it's not likely to enter their shops for years.

  • Storage for the small- to medium-sized business (SMB) market that has gigabytes of storage and low transaction rates, not terabytes of storage and high-end performance.

  • Low-performing storage bogged down by TCP/IP network processing overhead. They believe storage communication is designed for a channel protocol meant for rapid, point-to-point I/O, not global routing. Without dedicated and expensive processing capabilities, iSCSI performance just won't cut it in the enterprise.

The real deal
The technology industry has a long memory. Storage based on iSCSI is far more mature and a lot more enterprise ready than many users believe. The Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) recently published "iSCSI enters the mainstream," a research report that looks at market perceptions, iSCSI implementation and future plans in detail. The report is based on the responses of 511 qualified storage professionals (see "Unstoppable iSCSI," Storage, February 2007).

Based on the survey results, the report concludes that iSCSI is much more mature and enterprise ready than expected. Seventeen percent of respondent organizations have deployed iSCSI in production environments, while another 20% plan to do so. Adoption is highest in the SMB sector, but iSCSI is being implemented across all company sizes, industries and applications.

Yet iSCSI performance is still misunderstood. Those users planning implementations or avoiding iSCSI are still concerned about the technology or believe iSCSI can't meet their performance needs. ESG believes these people may be basing their opinions on industry folklore rather than on the experiences of actual iSCSI users. According to ESG research, nearly nine out of every 10 iSCSI users were either satisfied or very satisfied with iSCSI network performance, while 82% were satisfied or very satisfied with iSCSI application performance.

In addition, ESG found iSCSI springing up as the solution of choice for new server implementations or SAN build-outs. The data indicates that iSCSI users will see the technology replacing FC SANs over the next three years.

Tech trends provide a boost
Clearly, iSCSI is further along than many storage professionals believe, and ESG data suggests an even brighter future. I think iSCSI will become even more pervasive than the numbers indicate due to the following:

  • Next-generation networking will pave the way for iSCSI. On the other side of IT, networking professionals are planning major rip-and-replace upgrades over the next few years. For example, the U.S. federal government will overhaul its entire network and move to Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) by June 2008. In theory, once the government goes to IPv6, everyone who connects to the government will follow. As this process unfolds, many of today's 1Gb Ethernet pipes will become 10Gb Ethernet pipes, thus seeding 10Gb technology into numerous large organizations. This will increase the overall 10Gb port count and lower the cost of the technology for everyone. The emergence of 10Gb networking will bolster iSCSI implementation along the way. ESG found that many organizations think of 10Gb Ethernet as a prerequisite for iSCSI. Once 10Gb Ethernet is firmly in place, look for the iSCSI floodgates to open.

  • Longhorn is just around the corner. This year, Microsoft will release its latest version of Windows Server, code-named Longhorn, which should help iSCSI move up-market. The reason for this is simple: Windows works great with iSCSI and Longhorn takes Windows into higher end Unix apps and engineering-intensive 64-bit processing. This won't be a subtle process, so expect Microsoft to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to trumpet Longhorn for the enterprise. And watch iSCSI go along for the ride as the next version of Windows--and Linux alternatives--moves deeper into the data center.
As these technology trends play out over the next few years, networking and server providers will join the chorus of iSCSI supporters. Switch vendors like Cisco, Extreme Networks, Force10 Networks and Foundry Networks will ask their networking customers to broker introductions with their storage counterparts. Intel server vendors such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM will also have more iSCSI knowledge and products to sell. Storage vendors like EMC and Network Appliance are anticipating these trends and have no qualms about pushing one switched-network transport over another.

The iSCSI to-do list
ESG data and impending market trends reveal that iSCSI will play a role in your storage infrastructure in the not-too-distant future. It's time for storage professionals to wake up and anticipate this inevitable event or get steamrolled in the process. To accomplish this, smart storage executives will:

  • Go to school. Storage pros who are used to channel protocols like ESCON, FICON and FC should improve their networking chops around IP, Ethernet and the seven-layer OSI model. Fortunately, there are tons of experts on IP networking and Ethernet, and no shortage of books, seminars and training classes to choose from. One way to build some basic know-how is to attend a networking trade show such as Interop. A few training sessions and a stroll through the exhibit hall are a good way to start learning what you need to know.

  • Poke around your own IT department. Is your organization moving to IPv6? Are the networking folks planning a major overhaul of the network backbone? What about your server platforms? Are there any big Windows or Linux implementations coming? Storage professionals will likely know about decisions like these over a six- to 12-month timeframe, but what about the longer term? By mapping your strategic enterprise IT planning, the storage team can pinpoint when iSCSI will be a more favorable alternative and plan its own path accordingly.

  • Check out vendor roadmaps. Many storage vendors currently support iSCSI, but what are their plans for the technology two to three years down the road? Will today's FC systems be upgradeable or will they need to be replaced? The only way to find out is to bring in your strategic vendors for an in-depth session. Make sure you provide some ground rules; you're on a fact-finding mission, so the session shouldn't be considered a sales call. If your organization is big enough, make sure your storage vendor involves some of its company heavyweights (CTO or VP of technology strategy).

The bottom line
While Internet-era predictions about iSCSI were on target, they were perhaps a little too aggressive--but all tech predictions were pretty aggressive back then. That said, iSCSI has crossed the proverbial chasm and is in the process of gaining full enterprise stature. Savvy users will be ready for this transition so they can take advantage of iSCSI sooner rather than later. It's best to prepare now, before system and networking teams use iSCSI as a power play to gain ownership of the storage tier.

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