TOEs kick into high gear

Specialized network interface cards that can open up more bandwidth for transporting data between storage devices and application servers are making inroads with corporate users, as prices fall and the Internet SCSI protocol catches on.

Users and analysts claim selling prices for the TCP/IP offload engines, referred to in shorthand as TOEs, have dropped below US$500 (AUD$674.82) in some cases. That compares with an average cost of about US$1,000 when the technology emerged two years ago.

Some IT managers said they're waiting for broader adoption of the iSCSI data transport protocol before installing TOEs on high-end servers, but they said using the cards on smaller systems makes sense at the current price points.

For example, Mike MacNeill, director of technical operations at Cross Country Healthcare in Florida, said he's using six iSCSI TOEs from Adaptec to reduce the CPU utilization on his Exchange e-mail and Oracle database servers by up to 15 percent.

The systems are backed up to two Network Appliance file servers over an iSCSI-based storage-area network, which MacNeill said he chose because it's five times cheaper than a Fibre Channel SAN and far less complex.

"The only reason we're buying TOE cards is because of iSCSI," MacNeill said, adding that the amount of data that the health care staffing firm needs to store on its SAN is growing rapidly. "Especially with Sarbanes-Oxley driving (increased e-mail retention), we expect to hit close to 10TB of capacity by the end of this year."

Tony Asaro, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group in the US said the combination of iSCSI and TOEs is "beginning to make significant steps toward being widely deployed." Asaro said he knows of more than 300 iSCSI SANs that are in production use, although he didn't have any statistics on TOE adoption.

Alacritech in San Jose released the SES1001 iSCSI Accelerator earlier this month, a TOE that uses Microsoft's iSCSI driver and has a list price of US$599. Intel and Adaptec released similar products last year at prices of between US$400 and $600.

According to analysts, TOE technology should receive another boost when Microsoft ships a native software driver that will provide a standard interface between the devices and server versions of Windows. But that's not imminent. Microsoft said the TOE architecture, which is code-named Chimney, is due for delivery at about the same as the Longhorn version of Windows, now expected in 2006.

Joseph Meier, chief technology officer at Stargate Digital, a visual effects company in California, is using Alacritech TOEs on 16 of his file servers with direct-attached storage in an effort to reduce CPU utilization by up to 60 percent while transmitting video streams to television networks.

"Being a visual effects house, we're moving a large number of high-resolution video frames for television and film," Meier said. "Consequently, our servers were spending a lot of time doing TCP/IP housecleaning."

Meier said the TOEs have generated a return on investment by eliminating the need to install a Fibre Channel SAN. "So far, they've proven their utility," he said. "They're very cost-effective, and they're all very fast."

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