TOEs help storage step up to the next level

A lot of noise has been made by me and others about the value of Transport Offload Engines or supercharged network interface cards for increasing network performance and efficiency of storage applications like iSCSI (IP storage). While iSCSI may have been one of the primary motivators for the development of TOEs, let's not lose sight of the fact that all network traffic, as well as application servers, will benefit from the use of TOEs.

In a nutshell, the engine moves the processing of TCP/IP or other network packets out of the operating system and implements it in hardware and firmware on an NIC card. As a result, applications will be handed data that has been unwrapped, if you will, at line to near line speeds.

This has two advantages over how transport processing, such as TCP/IP is done in the kernel today. First, your application server processor is no longer spending any cycles on TCP/IP protocol that, in some cases can consume up to 80% of the CPU.

These cycles can now be better used processing business-critical applications. The second benefit is that the TCP/IP processing is being performed at line or near-line speeds in hardware rather than in software (the operating system) to accelerate the entire network process. The growing adoption of Gigabit Ethernet coupled with the ever-increasing speed of processors meant that the processing of TCP/IP packets became a substantial bottleneck in getting the data to the processor.

With this in mind, it's fairly easy to see that all TCP/IP traffic will benefit from the use of these TOEs. Networked storage applications such as network-attached storage (NAS), iSCSI storage-area networks, as mentioned before, will be accelerated but so will all intercomputer communication.

Clustered environments, for example, where state information is shared, and tightly coupled content management caches are just a couple of examples where TOE's can provide substantial benefit.

From an application perspective, many of the customers Enterprise Management Associates has spoken with use NAS for database applications. Internet servers often get bogged down with network traffic. Not to mention network backup and/or remote data transfer applications for business continuance.

These applications can now be accelerated by replacing an NIC with a TOE. You want your applications to run? All you have to do is add some TOEs (sorry, I couldn't help myself).

Now that the iSCSI specification has been moved in the IETF to Requests for Comments status, thereby freezing the 1.0 specification, you will begin to see more aggressive IP storage initiatives from your vendors. With this, TOE vendors will begin to come out of the woodwork, with TCP and TCP/iSCSI combined offload engines. Today or in the near future, you can gain the benefits of TOEs from companies such as Adaptec, Alacritec, Intel and Lucent.

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