Tech Industry

Storage networking standard wins approval

A key standards body gives its blessing for iSCSI, a new technology that allows storage area networks to be built using existing Ethernet networking.

A key standards body has given its blessing for a new technology that allows storage area networks to be built using existing Ethernet networking.

Late Tuesday, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) approved the iSCSI standard. SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) is a widely used standard for connecting hard drives to computers; iSCSI lets that happen over a network connection such as a company Ethernet network or even the Internet. iSCSI holds the promise of letting multiple computers tap into a pool of storage systems.

The major competitor for iSCSI is the existing Fibre Channel protocol, which offers high performance and is well-established in the marketplace, but requires separate networks. By contrast, a key benefit of iSCSI is that it works with existing computer networks. While not widely used today, iSCSI holds the potential to be less expensive and less difficult to use.

Companies have already built iSCSI products based on a draft proposal, but the formal ratification paves the way for greater adoption by storage companies and customers.

"Ratification of the standard means that end users can move forward with solutions with more confidence," said Bryce Mackin, marketing chair of the IP Storage Forum of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) and a product line manager for Adaptec.

The SNIA subgroup finished its final comments on the standard in September. Although some minor changes have been made, none of the modifications should affect compatibility for products that have been built on the draft standard, Mackin said.

IBM and Cisco Systems are among the early backers of iSCSI, but Mackin said he expects a large number of companies to come out with products this year, now that the standard has won final approval. Cisco, for example, has been shipping gear that works with both technologies.

While Fibre Channel is likely to remain the standard for large companies, Mackin said many small and midsized businesses have been reluctant to move to storage area networks because of the costs of setting up and maintaining a separate network. Products using iSCSI should allow those companies to move away from direct-attached storage without the burdens of a separate network infrastructure.

"I see the two technologies being complementary," Mackin said of iSCSI and Fibre Channel.

Analysts and others in the storage industry see iSCSI initially appealing to low-end customers, particularly those who have traditionally bought storage systems that attach directly to a server.

"Our view is that this ratification paves the way for a two-phase adoption of iSCSI," said Tony Prigmore, an Enterprise Storage Group analyst. "The lower-end (customers) that had historically purchased direct-attached storage now have an acceptable network storage alternative that is relatively inexpensive and easy to deploy."

What's in store
Prigmore expects iSCSI to have the largest impact initially on Microsoft Windows-based storage systems. Down the road though, he said, iSCSI could find its way into more high-end data center applications.

"As it earns its stripes and proves itself as a reliable infrastructure it will migrate into a more traditional data center" environment, he said.

While plenty of iSCSI devices are expected to be announced this year, most will be low-end appliance-like devices that are well suited to companies that want the benefits of a storage network but don't have a dedicated staff to support them.

"Ease of use will be a key issue," said Clod Barrera, director of systems strategy for IBM's storage unit. "Lots of customers have IP or Ethernet networks, and they know how to use them."

Another early adopter of iSCSI devices could be corporations looking for a lower-priced way to store less critical data, what Data Mobility Group analyst John Webster termed the "second-tier" of corporate storage.

"I think that is a prime candidate," Webster said.

The entrance of iSCSI into the data center is unlikely to occur until Ethernet networks move from 1 gigabit per second to 10 gigabits per second, said Barrera and others.

"Today at 1 gigabit there really is not a (good) reason to change over," Barrera said.

Dave Hitz, founder and executive vice president of engineering at Network Appliance, said the emergence of iSCSI will help to further break down the eroding wall of what distinguishes a storage area network from storage that is attached to a network.

"We're big, big fans of iSCSI," Hitz said. He said the idea of a storage area network appeals to a lot more companies than have purchased such systems.

"The price tag on SAN can be really prohibitive," Hitz said, but he added that with iSCSI such customers may be able to justify a storage area network. "I think it's really going to expand the market."

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.