IBM rethinks iSCSI product plans

IBM Corp. is rethinking its product strategy for an emerging storage protocol known as iSCSI (Internet Small Computer System Interface). It has halted development of an iSCSI storage appliance released last year, two industry sources said, and is preparing systems that should better address the needs of customers.

IBM announced its IP Storage 200i appliance last year, touting it as the first fully-fledged iSCSI hardware on the market. iSCSI promises to make existing Ethernet networks more useful for data storage, and IBM earned praise for leading the product push behind the standard.

Despite the praise, however, IBM’s customers have called for iSCSI support on more powerful storage systems, forcing the vendor to reconsider the direction it will take with the technology, said Sandra Dressel, a spokeswoman at IBM.

“We wanted to make sure this was a technology people wanted, and we got that validation back,” Dressel said. “When new technology first enters the marketplace you often see them in these types of products (appliances), but then the technology matures and goes more into the infrastructure and eventually becomes native across various products.”

Dressel declined to provide specific details on when future IBM iSCSI-based products might arrive or exactly how the company will implement the technology moving forward. However, she did say that customer feedback has led the vendor to believe iSCSI will be supported with some of the company’s more functional storage products instead of just the 200i appliance.

One analyst said IBM has stopped development of the 200i, most likely as a result of performance issues surrounding iSCSI-based hardware. IBM’s Dressel denied that Big Blue has stopped developing the product.

“They may have a few 200i’s in the warehouse, but the product did die,” said Arun Taneja, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group Inc. in Milford, Massachusetts. “It seems to have been done in a very hush hush way.”

Barbara Murphy, technical product manager at storage vendor 3ware Inc. in Mountain View, California, also said during an interview Monday that IBM had stopped developing the 200i.

Performance problems with iSCSI-based hardware appears to be the major hurdle affecting the adoption of the technology, said Taneja.

The biggest benefit of the iSCSI protocol stems from its ability to transfer block-level data normally sent via SCSI commands over IP (Internet Protocol) networks. Sending block-level data over IP could help link a company’s SAN (storage area network) with its Ethernet network and free up more data to more servers.

These benefits, however, cannot be achieved until products like the 200i do a better job of handling TCP/IP requests with TOE (TCP Offload Engine) network interface cards, Taneja said.

“TCP/IP traffic is just a huge hog of processor performance,” he said. “With a TOE, all the TCP/IP traffic is off-loaded, which means you get much better overall system performance.”

Taneja said TCP/IP traffic can take up all the processing power of an Intel Corp. 1GHz Pentium III processor, which is close to the 1.13GHz Pentium III chip IBM has used in the 200i. With TCP/IP traffic taking up so much horsepower, the 200i would not have many resources left to work on actual applications, he said. Vendors will need to roll out TOEs for iSCSI systems to make the technology truly useful, he said.

Another analyst said several major vendors are raising questions about iSCSI due to delays in finalizing the protocol. An official first version of the iSCSI protocol still has yet to be delivered.

“A lot of vendors are backing away from iSCSI at the moment,” said John Webster, senior analyst and founder of the Data Mobility Group in Londonderry, New Hampshire. “I think there is a sense among the larger vendors that they will see more activity in the general marketplace later in this year or even early next year.”

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