Panel: Storage options improving

Storage experts say IP storage and performance advances present a variety of opportunities for enterprise customers who have not yet implemented storage-area networks.

That was the consensus of a panel on storage technologies held with speakers from companies including Pirus Networks Inc., Nauticus Networks, Hewlett-Packard Co., EMC Corp., Enterprise Storage Group Inc. and Charles River Ventures late last year. The group discussed a number of needs of which users contemplating storage networks should be aware, including improving performance and scalability, the evolution of IP storage and the need for storage standards.

To achieve those goals, Chris Baldwin, a partner with Charles River Ventures, suggested breaking apart tightly coupled systems to let each do what they are best at.

"Our data infrastructure is a layer of many pieces, each of them optimized unto themselves, but without a system view over them. We have parts that are good at networking, parts that are good at computing and parts that are good at storage," he said.

Baldwin supports optimizing individual technology components so much that he has funded Nauticus Networks, Pirus Networks and Storigen. These companies focus on increasing the performance of the storage component and alleviating I/O processing from the server so it can better run applications. Pirus makes a carrier-class switch that uses Fibre Channel and iSCSI to transport block and file-based data. Nauticus is developing an application-level switch for the data center that will focus on availability, performance, manageability, security and reliability.

Brice Clark, director of strategy at HP, agreed with Baldwin's assessment, but said a fourth component is missing.

"That's a data center operating system that lets applications run one after another, after another," Clark said. "The initiative to manage the data center is one that is key . . . so that you can expand and contract as demand changes. The system has to ultimately become dynamic. That fourth element doesn't exist today."

The industry is starting to look at adopting IP storage (iSCSI) as a mechanism to speed along data traffic. ISCSI involves the transport of SCSI data over Ethernet and, according to the panelists, will be one of the best ways to get data where it belongs for customers who have not yet implemented a SAN or those who need to bridge together existing SANs.

"When you look at the transition to iSCSI, the market is divided," said Richard Napolitano, president of Pirus. "People talk of edge connectivity for iSCSI, to send data across the country or ocean." Others will use it for direct-attached storage.

The panelists said despite the advantages of iSCSI, its adoption will not be any faster than Fibre Channel's or even Ethernet's were. ISCSI will follow a long, protracted road fraught with standards and interoperability issues.

"[ISCSI's] adoption rate is going to be somewhat slower because the silicon necessary to make that incremental leap above Fibre Channel to 10G bit/sec throughput is nontrivial," said Bob Supnik, CTO for Nauticus. Vendors such as Trebia Networks and Adaptec make ASICs for TCP Offload Engine and iSCSI, which will speed I/O processing.

EMC said iSCSI, Ethernet and Fibre Channel vendors have a lot to learn from each other.

"Fibre Channel was developed because Ethernet couldn't handle storage traffic adequately. It was still struggling with 100M bit/sec [throughput] and 10Base-T connections - Ethernet was just barely making the transition to switching," said Ken Steinhardt, director of global marketing at EMC. "Ethernet has come a long way, largely benefiting from Fibre Channel's [development] of gigabit technology, which it basically absorbs."

Most panelists said Fibre Channel and iSCSI are complementary rather than competitive technologies.

"ISCSI will probably help Fibre Channel before it ever eats into Fibre Channel because it presents a choice to people and the ability to deliver storage services over a fabric that they already own that's extensible in the metro area and the wide-area environment," Clark said. "ISCSI is a technology that can connect all kinds of existing storage, including Fibre Channel storage, into this fabric."

Baldwin said there is a lesson that can be learned from Cisco, one of the leaders in IP networking.

"When I look at where we are in the storage world, it reminds me a lot of when Cisco first appeared," Baldwin said. "Cisco said, 'You've got token ring, Ethernet WAN links; you have TCP and DECnet - which one is going to win out?' Did Cisco win the bridge vs. router war because it made better routers? No, it was because it made both switches and routers. In the storage world, we have to acknowledge that we have Fibre Channel, SCSI and iSCSI. Someone needs to help customers build infrastructure out of them."

Despite the issues iSCSI has, standards do not appear to be one of them.

"Even though I have only 16 years in the storage business, I've never met a customer that bought a storage product of any kind because of a standard," said Tony Prigmore, an analyst with Enterprise Storage Group.

That's one point on which all the storage experts agreed.

"It comes down to what works and what is actually able to solve business problems," Steinhardt said. "We have several customers that interconnect EMC storage, legacy Hitachi storage, IBM tape drives and Brocade switches together with four different operating systems. Their installation isn't standard, but it works."

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