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Storage technologies duke it out

Two dueling technologies for creating special-purpose storage networks, iSCSI and Fibre Channel, have taken big steps forward, their backers announce at Comdex.

LAS VEGAS--Two dueling technologies for creating special-purpose storage networks have taken big steps forward, their backers announced Monday at the Comdex Fall 2002 trade show.

The announcements advance iSCSI and Fibre Channel, two competing methods for building special-purpose "storage area networks," or SANs. Most of these SANs today use the fast but expensive Fibre Channel communications standard. But technology for the newer iSCSI standard is gradually improving.

QLogic announced new network cards and management software, its first products to use the new iSCSI storage-networking standard. At the same time, Emulex announced a faster 10 gigabit-per-second version of Fibre Channel.

Companies increasingly are connecting storage devices to servers using SANs, and QLogic is joining IBM, Cisco Systems and other allies in backing iSCSI, which does the same thing but uses more pedestrian Ethernet networks.

The iSCSI technology arrival was delayed by a last-minute requirement that it incorporate a technology called IPsec, which permits encrypted communications. QLogic's products have special chips to accelerate both IPsec and the rest of the TCP/IP networking operations that iSCSI uses. That hardware acceleration is a crucial stage in trying to bring iSCSI up to Fibre Channel speeds without taxing a server's CPU (central processing unit), which otherwise would have to handle the additional processing.

But Fibre Channel is a moving target. It currently works at 2 gigabit-per-second speeds. Emulex, which uses networking chips from Finisar, said Monday it's demonstrating 10-gigabit-per-second speeds.

iSCSI advocates acknowledge their technology currently is slower but argue that in the long run it will catch up because it can piggyback on the TCP/IP networking technology, the dominant standard worldwide and the standard the Internet uses.

But the succession of one technology to another is rarely graceful, with the old guard defending its incumbent status and new companies trying to wrestle away the crown. And the difficulties of designing new technologies exacerbate the problems of switching.

iSCSI began trickling into products even before the standard was final. But the technology hasn't moved fast enough; one of its main backers, networking giant Cisco, bowed to market and technology realities and began supporting Fibre Channel.