Stage set for easy, cheap rollouts of IP-based storage

After some fits and starts, an IP version of the low-cost SCSI storage interconnect is finally in position to attract wider attention from technology vendors and users.

The Internet Engineering Task Force’s IP storage steering group last week formally ratified the iSCSI protocol as a standard. That paves the way for storage vendors to ramp up shipments of products based on iSCSI, which is designed to let network administrators take servers that have been locked into direct-attached storage systems and plug them into IP-based networks for data backup and management functions.

After the vote, the IETF released the iSCSI specification for public comments. David Black, a senior technologist at EMC Corp. and co-chairman of the IETF’s IP storage group, said the comment period should last about a month. But, he added, “at this point, nothing will change. We’re done in terms of technical changes.”

Because IP networks are commonplace, iSCSI can be used to transmit data over LANs, WANs and the Internet, potentially allowing users to access information via corporate intranets or Web-based portals. “Whatever you can do with an e-mail, you can do with iSCSI over the same wire,” said Bryce Mackin, chairman of marketing for the IP Storage Forum in the Storage Networking Industry Association, a trade group in Mountain View, Calif.

Joe Bishop, a database systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said the lab plans to install an iSCSI network within the next 30 days or so. It will use an iSCSI software kit from Network Appliance Inc. that is being announced Monday. The iSCSI protocol upgrade for NetApp’s 800 and 900 series arrays is free.

The network will be used to back up Sun Solaris servers, which hold flight, financial and project management data in Oracle databases, to network-attached storage devices made by NetApp.

“We want fail-over capability between buildings on our campus,” Bishop said. By using iSCSI, the lab can take advantage of its existing IP network and avoid the need to install new cabling, he added.

Joe Stocker, a network coordinator at Safeco Corp., an insurance and financial services company in Seattle, said he plugged in a 1.5TB iSCSI array in November to offload data from three Compaq ProLiant servers that were using about 90 per cent of their storage space at the time. The array, made by San Diego-based IP SAN appliance start-up StoneFly Networks Inc., cost US$25,000 and took just one hour to install, Stocker said.

Although he doesn’t think iSCSI technology is robust enough for large server environments, Stocker noted that the technology suited his purposes perfectly. For example, iSCSI required no additional network configuration work or IT training expenditures, as Fibre Channel technology would have, he said.

It will take time for iSCSI to mature into an enterprise-class storage technology, said Tony Prigmore, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Mass. But iSCSI will eventually find its way into data centers as an alternative to Fibre Channel technology for some applications, he added. “We expect it to earn its stripes on the periphery and then, over time, migrate to elements of the core infrastructure,” he said.

The protocol got off to a rough start last year when IBM Corp. stopped development of native iSCSI arrays after its IP Storage 200i appliance met with poor sales. The company still offers the 200i, but Roland Hagan, vice president of marketing for storage systems, said that in the future, IBM will likely resell iSCSI devices made by other vendors instead of developing its own technology.

Despite IBM’s pullback, many small vendors are already shipping iSCSI arrays, switches and host bus adapters. And industry leaders such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp. and EMC are expected to roll out devices during the next few months.

Another important milestone will be Microsoft Corp.’s release of iSCSI software drivers for Windows. Microsoft said via e-mail that drivers should be available for Windows 2000, Windows XP and the upcoming Windows Server 2003 within 90 days.