IP addresses storage call

Despite a raft of technical challenges and entrenched support for Fibre Channel, IP-based storage networks are gathering steam, as vendors roll out new technologies.

Leading the charge this week was Cisco Systems Inc., which has stepped up to the plate with a new router that offers support for both Fibre Channel and IP switching technology.

Cisco's SN-5428 Storage Router, which is aimed at enterprise workgroups and midsize businesses, is a full-blown Fibre Channel switch, according to the company.

The move comes at a time when enterprises are buoyed by the performance and efficiency gains of IP yet face the reality of needing to support existing infrastructures such as Fibre Channel SANs (storage area networks).

As a result, issues such as industrywide standards adoption and security remain unresolved.

A number of proposed data storage standards set to challenge Fibre Channel are still in development, iSCSI (Internet SCSI), iFCP (Internet Fibre Channel Protocol), Gigabit Ethernet, and Infiniband.

Meanwhile, a set of standards-based APIs are yet to emerge to effectively handle storage management and mitigate user concerns regarding interoperability, according to Dell.

"What will be required is for more ISVs to program to that standards-based model," commented Russell Holt, vice president and general manager of Dell's enterprise systems group in Round Rock, Texas. As for security, Holt argues that Dell customers are concerned about IP-based storage due to its exposure to the Web and the performance degradation introduced by the use of IPsec.

Officials at Nishan Systems, a startup that is shipping multiprotocol storage switches that support iSCSI and iFCP, disagreed.

"Customers have shifted to 'will [IP] do the job today and at the same time be future-proof?' " said Tom Clark, director of technical marketing at San Jose, Calif.-based Nishan Systems.

IP storage and standards development are tracking a similar path to Fibre Channel's introduction a few years ago, Clark said. He believes the transport portion of the iSCSI protocol, which analysts say is still a few years away, can be easily upgraded as enhancements to the standard are made.

In addition to the iSCSI protocol, progress is also being made with FCIP (Fibre Channel over IP) and iFCP. As does iSCSI, these protocols define ways to interconnect disparate Fibre Channel-based SAN islands using standard Ethernet-based networking gear.

According to analysts, Cisco's announcement this week demonstrates that some vendors are confident that the standards are on track. In fact, Cisco's confidence was demonstrated in April when it announced the 5420 gateway, designed to connect Fibre Channel devices over an IP network.

"This [SN-5428] product has all the makings of a massively successful product," said Steve Duplessie, senior analyst at Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Storage Group (ESG), explaining that Cisco has realized it can compete in the Fibre Channel space.

According to IDC, the market for iSCSI-based storage is expected to grow to almost US$2.5 billion by 2005.

The added functionality of Fibre switching in the SN-5428 supports that drive, offering midrange datacenters the capability of networking IP storage devices off DAS (direct attached storage) servers, said Doug Ingram, senior manager of marketing for the storage technology group at Cisco.

Ingram said the 5428 is a cost-effective way to expand workgroup storage outward from a DAS server to a network of IP-based storage servers, essentially comprising an IP SAN.

With eight 1Gb Ethernet or 1Gb Fibre Channel ports and 2Gb Ethernet ports, the 5428 allows users to add external, networked Fibre Channel storage devices and non-Fibre storage devices running iSCSI, which carries both block and file data.

Cisco's introduction of the 5428 puts the switch in circulation comfortably ahead of the market inflection point of iSCSI. Cisco's message is clear, according to ESG's Duplessie. "Cisco is saying, 'Even if you don't want iSCSI today, we offer you all the Fibre Channel performance, at a lower cost, and our iSCSI component readies you for the future, and oh, by the way, we're Cisco,' " explained Duplessie.

The 5428 will compete with other Fibre Channel-to-IP storage technologies, including Nishan Systems' IPS 4000 Series IP Storage Switches. Nishan believes its product is even more future-proof than Cisco's because it supports multiple IP standards, as opposed to the 5428's support of only one.

Nishan reported that its customers are currently deploying datacenter implementations of IP storage and will look at using iSCSI cards later this year. "Customers are not going to give up [Fibre Channel], but they are starting to build more IP storage, as technology gets cheaper and new products from other vendors continue to arrive later this year," Clark said.

Earlier this month at the semiannual NetWorld+Interop 2002 conference in Las Vegas, Intel introduced the PRO/1000 T IP storage adapter. It will compete against other Gigabit Ethernet iSCSI network interface cards, such as the one introduced by startup Alacritech.

At the conference, Nishan and Alacritech demonstrated iSCSI throughput at 219Mbps through a single Gigabit connection. Emulex and Adaptec have announced plans to introduce their iSCSI cards later this year.

Mark Jones contributed to this article.

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