iSCSI protocol approved as standard

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) this week approved a protocol that will allow network administrators to eventually take millions of small servers that have been locked into direct-attached storage systems and plug them into Ethernet storage networks for backup and management.

The IETF's IP storage steering group formally ratified the Internet Small Computer Systems Interface (iSCSI) protocol as a standard and released it for comments.

David Black, a senior technologist at EMC Corp. in Hopkinton, Mass., and co-chairman of the IP storage working group of the IETF, said the request for comments should take about a month. But "at this point, nothing will change. We're done, in terms of technical changes," he said.

Because IP networks are commonplace, iSCSI can be used to transmit data over LANs, WANs and the Internet and allows for data storage and retrieval from any independent workstation. There is anywhere from a 5:1 to 10:1 cost-benefit ratio to using iSCSI over Fibre Channel storage-area networks, experts say, mainly due to standardized technology and the fact that the same workforce needed to manage common data networks can manage the storage network.

"Whatever you can do with an e-mail, you can do with iSCSI over the same wire," said Bryce Mackin, chairman of marketing for the Storage Networking Industry Association's IP Storage Forum, a vendor advocacy group.

Joe Bishop, a database systems engineer working in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, Calif., said he's preparing to install an iSCSI storage network in about a month. The network will be used to back up data from the majority of his 150 Sun Solaris servers to network-attached storage from Network Appliance Inc.

"When it comes right down to it, we want fail-over capability between buildings on our campus. By using iSCSI, we don't have to run those [network] cables again," Bishop said.

ISCSI works by encapsulating SCSI commands and data in Transmission Control Protocol packet headers and sending them over IP networks. Once the packets arrive at the storage server, the headers are stripped off and the data stored.

According to some experts, iSCSI will take time to mature into an enterprise-class storage technology, but it will eventually find its way into large data centers. IBM last year stopped development of its IP Storage 200i appliance, a native iSCSI storage array that suffered from poor sales in the unsupported, nascent marketplace (see story).

"ISCSI is not going to throw Fibre Channel out of the data center. It's going to be in coexistence with it," said Tony Prigmore, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group in Milford, Mass. "We would not expect iSCSI technology to be in the center of the glass-house infrastructure. We expect it to earn its stripes on periphery and then, over time, migrate to elements of core infrastructure."

Prigmore and Mackin said they believe that over the next several months, iSCSI start-up companies, as well as industry stalwarts such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp. and EMC, will begin shipping iSCSI arrays and host bus adapters.

"The Microsoft driver release clock will start to tick soon," said Bill Huber vice president of engineering and chief technology officer at storage vendor StoneFly Networks Inc. in San Diego.

The vendor industry has long awaited Microsoft's release of a simple software driver that will allow Windows-based servers that now use direct-attached storage to interact with the iSCSI protocol -- allowing them to be backed up across the IP network.

Microsoft said in an e-mail response to Computerworld that iSCSI compatibility in Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 will be available within 90 days of iSCSI specification ratification.

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