The internet has been an inescapable technology. In every sector of IT, the web has played a role in subverting, changing, overtaking, complicating or improving what already existed. Why should the storage arena be any different?
Storage is big business, and network storage technologies such as storage area network (San) and network attached storage (Nas) have been its shining stars, reinventing the way firms move, back up and store data.
Now it is the internet's turn. Just don't expect it to happen overnight.
Traditionally, it has been San versus Nas. In the past couple of years, however, a storage uprising has erupted from the San arena: internet-enabled storage, using TCP/IP.
The next big thing in storage?
IP storage, as it is known, is the new buzzword, with technologies such as internet Small Computer System Interface (iSCSI), Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP) and Internet Fibre Channel Protocol (iFCP) being pushed as the next big things in storage.
As expected, there are vendors camped under each flag offering support; vendors straddling two or more technologies to hedge their bets and others sitting back waiting to find out what the hell is going on.
Customers are even less certain, and the economic climate means storage is not particularly high on their financially restrained shopping lists.
And there's the rub: some of the technologies are not fully ready, others have no official industry or security standards, and firms are not in the position to experiment.
Andy Shepperd, general manager for networking and storage at Computer 2000, says: "The world is heading towards everything over IP: video, audio, voice and data. It is the enabler for so many things now that storage over IP is a natural progression. The IP storage market today, though, is an emerging market and it will take between 12 and 18 months before it really begins to take off.
"The things that will drive it will be price point, standards and market perception. Right now, companies are not willing to spend on new technologies; purse strings are too tight. In the channel, we are seeing minimal demand for IP storage solutions.
"Resellers are pondering it but the UK channel is conservative at the moment and there is a lot of consolidation around the primary brands. The market is only comfortable with the big names, because companies are looking for risk-free computing solutions."
Gerry Warry, marketing director at reseller InTechnology, says: "Everyone may be talking about IP storage but it is not necessarily what people are buying. People do not want to head down a route that may be changed in a short time.
"Take iSCSI. There are still standards issues to be sorted out, which is leading some to shy away from it, at least for the moment. As for the channel, there is a good opportunity for the right reseller. But right now, you won't be able to live off IP storage sales alone. You will have to wrap some services around them."
Jason Beeson, business development manager at distributor and storage specialist Hammer, says: "The iSCSI standards situation is not where it needs to be at this time. Everyone is going on about IP storage, such as iSCSI and FCIP, but it's just not there yet. As a market, it will not be ready for another three to six months."
Adam Sharp, regional marketing manager at Fibre Channel market leader Brocade Communications, says: "People are looking at IP storage but they're not sure yet. There are no real big players, and market conditions have slowed things down. Also, if you look at companies right now, they are waiting for solutions from vendors, not just products."
IP variations on a San theme
If San was a piece of classical music, then the various IP-based technologies would be referred to as variations on a theme.
The San model is now largely based around Fibre Channel technology, something that has been knocking around since 1989 but which took years to catch on, and even longer to become the de facto base for many San offerings. It is now regarded as a stable, mature technology for creating a network-based storage solution.
Some argue that iSCSI and the IP-based storage bandwagon will have to wait just as long until it is accepted as a mainstream offering.
Others, such as Beeson, disagree. "Fibre Channel had huge problems with standards and interoperability issues," he says.
"Even today, some interoperability issues are still rattling on. From a customer point of view, IP will be accepted far more quickly than Fibre Channel ever was. People have already been investing in the IP infrastructure, through other technologies, for the past 10 years.
"Much of what is needed is already in place, and as a result, most companies understand IP a lot better than Fibre Channel."
IP-based storage solutions will certainly enjoy some advantages, when they arrive en masse. This is because Sans are not the cheapest network-based storage option, making it difficult for smaller companies to jump on the bandwagon.
Added to that is the fact that Fibre Channel technology is quite complex, which means customers and resellers will have to pay to train or find highly skilled people to implement and manage it.
These are just some of the reasons why IP-storage storage solutions are appealing, not only to smaller players that cannot afford Sans, but also to enterprises that want to link to existing Sans, reduce their network storage costs or extend Sans over greater distances via IP.
"San technology has not really been available to smaller businesses to date, but it will start to move down into that space as IP storage takes off," Shepperd says. "IP storage is a lot cheaper to implement and over time it will get even cheaper. Price is important now, and [low prices] are needed to create mass-market appeal.
"The other advantages to IP are that there is uniformity of protocol, the ability to leverage existing skills and ease of management. It's the flexibility of it all."
Beeson adds: "Fibre Channel, or even FCIP, will always be more expensive, in more ways than one. Fibre Channel-based storage adaptors are two to three times more expensive that regular high-performance network cards, the switches are enormously expensive and the training needed to get staff up to speed can be costly.
"It's not just the hardware and software costs; even on a small scale it can be expensive.
"That said, these prices are being driven down all of the time. Right now you can pay as much as $6,500 for an eight-port Fibre Channel switch, but it was double that last year. There is a big push by firms such as QLogic to ramp up volumes and drive down prices."
Sharp agrees. "The cost issue is changing," he says. "Today, you see companies such as Hewlett Packard and Dell - among others - putting together Fibre Channel San bundles for the SME arena.
"There is no way that could have happened a year ago. They are even sending out technical teams to put it in and support it for smaller customers that don't have the expertise."
Despite price cuts, Fibre Channel will always have high requirements in terms of costs and skills. Also, many smaller companies don't need the performance offered by Fibre Channel and are willing to settle for something slower.
The development of IP storage networking transport mechanisms for block-level storage gives IT managers the ability to manage different environments by allowing direct-attached storage and Sans to be integrated over a common IP backbone.
Essentially, IP-based environments will be cheaper, allow better use of resources and support existing storage applications such as back-up and disaster recovery.
What's on offer
Now - and this may all change in six months - the three main IP-based storage technologies are iSCSI, iFCP and FCIP. The latter is still Fibre Channel with IP transporting thrown into the mix.
ISCSI is getting most of the headlines these days. The main advantage of iSCSI is cost, since it requires a minimum of new equipment, new skills and infrastructure overhauls. Two major backers of iSCSI are IBM and Cisco; both have released products based on early standards.
But there are downsides and grey areas surrounding iSCSI: there is a severe performance gap between it and Fibre Channel, few final standards (although they are due) and some question marks over security.
FCIP is designed to protect and extend the capabilities of the Fibre Channel San environments already available. Referred to as a 'tunnelling' protocol, it uses IP as the transport while maintaining the rest of Fibre Channel's capabilities.
Distance has always been a problem for Fibre Channel, so FCIP combines IP networking with San technology to extend the interconnectivity of Sans across much longer distances via Lans, metropolitan area networks and wireless area networks.
Like iSCSI, the standard is being overseen by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Ultimately, however, FCIP is still Fibre Channel, and it is not the low-cost IP-based storage solution that many have been promoting.
Finally, there is iFCP, largely pushed by Nishan, a start-up funded by Dell, Quantum and others. It is a superset of iSCSI and FCIP, supporting Fibre Channel over TCP/IP. It is a gateway-to-gateway protocol in which TCP/IP switching and routing components complement and enhance or replace the Fibre Channel fabric.
IFCP allows Fibre Channel Sans to be interconnected via TCP/IP networks of any distance, using standard Gigabit Ethernet switches and routers. Like FCIP, it is targeting the existing Fibre Channel market.
With any technology involving the internet, security turns up like a bad penny. The issue revolves around firms entrusting the storage of sensitive data over IP, so it is easy to see why the issue has sparked a response.
To ensure that security is properly addressed the IETF has said the IP Security (IPsec) protocol must be used in all three IP storage technologies. It's all down to 'eavesdropping', apparently, and encryption using IPsec is seen as one way of reducing the risk.
IPsec is the recognised technology for authenticating and encrypting IP packets that are sent across virtual private networks. EMC, IBM, Cisco, Microsoft and others are backing it but some believe enforcing IPsec compliance could double or triple the cost of iSCSI devices to the end-user, negating their key advantage.
Others feel the security issue has been overblown and will not affect take-up of IP storage. "Security is a big issue, but by the time IP storage hits the mass market these issues will have been largely resolved," Beeson says.
Shepperd adds: "IP is open and universal, but with those strengths there are weaknesses. Most people accept you can secure IP storage solutions if you have the right skills. I don't think having data held on an IP-based storage network makes the network any less secure than it was."
Fiber Channel here to stay - for the moment
There has been a lot of talk about whether or not IP-based storage technologies are going to topple Fibre Channel, but the truth is not that simple. Any vendor claiming Fibre Channel is on the way out is not to be trusted, since the reality of the situation is a long way from being so neatly packaged.
Companies have invested a lot in setting up their Fibre Channel Sans, and unless iSCSI becomes secure, faster, standardised, tested and free there is no reason for that to change. That said, Fibre Channel has been too expensive for a large chunk of the market and IP storage is expected to clean up in the SME arena in the long run.
"People are beginning to see there is room for both of them," Warry says. "Last year, a company with 40 servers that wanted to implement a San was faced with putting in a lot of expensive Fibre Channel fabric switches and adaptors.
"Today, they look at the few servers that require high service rates and put those over San while the rest can go over IP because it is cheaper, and performance is not an issue."
Beeson adds: "What will happen - and even the rival iSCSI and Fibre Channel vendors admit this - is that FCIP and iFCP will remain in data centres, because this is the environment that needs high performance and can afford it. Outside this it will be IP."
Even Sharp agrees that the future is complementary, not confrontational.
Evidence of this merging came this year when Brocade agreed a tie-up with IP-based storage provider Network Appliance. Sharp says: "A year ago there was no way this would have happened. They were pushing Ethernet and IP solutions and we are a Fibre Channel company.
"Now we are working together because our goals are not all that different. IP-based storage will not replace Fibre Channel in the data centre, but technologies such as iSCSI, which might be less expensive and more plug-and-play, will sit outside the data centre."
So there it is. Rather than older network-based storage technologies being swept under the carpet, everyone is expecting a future built on integrated solutions. The IP storage wave may be on the horizon but there is plenty of time before resellers need to reach for the surfboards.
- IP-based storage technology is being talked about, but sales have disappointed.
- Customers and resellers are unwilling to invest in new, barely standardised technology.
- IP-based solutions will coexist with, not replace, existing Fibre Channel Sans.
- It will be six to 12 months before IP storage products enter the mainstream.
THE BENEFITS OF A FIBRE CHANNEL DIET
There are a number of financial, practical and technical arguments that suggest Fibre Channel is under no short- or medium-term threat from iSCSI and the rest of the pretenders.
First, Fibre Channel is the San infrastructure standard. IP storage is exciting but raw and largely untested in large implementations.
Fibre Channel has more standards, vendors and specifications than Imelda Marcos has shoes. ISCSI and others have a lot of backing and some specifications but no finalised standard spanning the networking and storage community. Goodwill just doesn't cut it.
Technically, Fibre Channel is faster and more secure.
WHAT IS iSCSI?
ISCSI is a blend of SCSI and TCP/IP, two technologies that have been around for several decades. In essence, all you have to do is add a few bits to your existing systems and you're ready to go.
It works like this: SCSI data in a typical server is sent to an iSCSI-enabled network interface card that adds the iSCSI protocol. This protocol allows the data to be wrapped in IP packets and sent across the Ethernet to a server with a host controller bus that converts the IP packets back into SCSI data.
Brocade Communications (0118) 965 3419
Computer 2000 (0870) 060 3344
Hammer (01256) 841 000
InTechnology (01423) 850 000
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