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What can the storage industry expect from IP storage?

June 20th, 2005

Businesses and organisations throughout Europe are generating, managing and storing exponentially growing volumes of data in order to retain their competitive advantage. And throughout 2005 we can expect to see even more of the same.

Of course, the incumbent technology in the top end of the storage pyramid has been fibre channel (FC). While sometimes seen as an expensive and complex technology to learn and deploy, FC has for many years been successfully used by larger organisations with resources, money and the business necessity to implement a storage area network (SAN). To that end, FC has become the established and proven choice, especially where speed and low latency are a prerequisite.

Traditionally, most SAN deployments have been driven by an insatiable demand for storage combined with the user benefits delivered by networked storage. These benefits include efficient storage utilisation through storage consolidation, the ability to manage more storage capacity, rapid deployment of new storage, higher availability, and faster backup and restore operations.

However, for many of the smaller to mid-sized enterprises (SME), it’s been a challenging task matching their ballooning storage capacity with the lower-cost but ultimately unwieldy and inefficient direct attached storage (DAS) alternative. The recent emergence of IP storage, especially around iSCSI, promises to deliver many of the benefits and features of a SAN but at a much lower cost.

Fortunately for storage vendors, customers are rapidly becoming aware of the benefits of IP storage. SME customers understand that IP storage solutions broaden their options and enable them to address the cost, availability, performance, and manageability issues caused by continual data growth.

At the same time, larger organisations recognise that IP storage solutions can complement and extend their existing SAN environments, or provide affordable new SAN storage solutions in parts of the IT infrastructure still dominated by direct-attached storage.

Complimentary co-existence?

However, there are challenges to the adoption of IP storage. Early on, the uptake of IP storage was somewhat thwarted by misconceptions that still need to be addressed – mostly caused by vendors who perceived a threat from IP storage. One regular misconception is that an IP SAN requires a specialised iSCSI switch when, as we all know, any Ethernet switch will do.

It is important to stress that there is no need for IP storage vendors or their customers to be anti-FC, and vice versa. This is a view backed up by the fact that most leading storage vendors already offer both FC and iSCSI solutions, or they offer solutions that are compatible between the two technologies. In reality, these technologies should be viewed as sharing a ‘complimentary co-existence’.

On the one hand, FC offers speed and low latency designed for heavy duty users. On the other, iSCSI brings similar benefits but in a low-cost, lower performance environment. It’s finding a comfort zone within this trade-off that is so valuable to many SMEs, as well as departments and workgroups of larger organisations, who now have a much wider and more affordable technology choice.

However, it’s no longer simply a cost issue when investing in IP storage. The reality is that the price of FC components has dropped to such a point that it is possible to build a basic FC SAN at a price point that is attractive to some SMEs. While this might increase the likelihood of simple FC SANs becoming affordable to some SMEs, the trade-off here is that the moment these basic FC SANs need to scale, the technical complexities grow as well. Therefore, a long-term networked storage strategy to determine the best solution is essential.

And let’s not ignore the other aspect – that FC and IP storage can happily co-exist together in a number of different scenarios, perhaps connecting FC SANs over an IP infrastructure using iFCP. All in all, it is a great opportunity for customers to deploy a mix of FC, iSCSI, FCIP or iFCP technologies, depending on their needs.

And all this is despite the fact that IP storage is relatively new. Confidence in the technology is growing as evidenced by leading vendors integrating it into their products and solutions. According to analyst group IDC, the worldwide iSCSI market alone is predicted to increase from Ј550m in 2004 to Ј2.75bn by 2007.

We can expect any remaining misconceptions about IP storage to fade in 2005 as more and more IP storage deployments are announced by the vendor community. Also expected to fade in 2005 are the redundant uses of the terms “SAN” and “NAS”; we can expect a trend towards commonplace use of the far less restricted and more customer-friendly “networked storage” terminology. In fact, IP storage has probably helped hasten the concept of networked storage following the ratification of the iSCSI, FCIP and iFCP block protocols by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Education! Education! Education!

Even as IP storage becomes more widely deployed by organisations in 2005, we need to continue to place more emphasis, as an industry, on educating end-users. Whether it’s Tony Blair’s “Education! Education! Education!” or Bill Clinton’s ‘It’s Education stupid,” you will often hear politicians laud the words ‘Education’ come election time. Well, we may not be appealing to millions and millions of people, but what we must do is ensure that those that count – the end-user customers and channel community – fully understand what IP storage can truly offer before adoption of this technology can really take off.

To conclude, throughout 2005 IP storage will expand the market for networked storage by giving IT managers affordable and manageable alternatives to direct attached storage. Clearly, we need to keep educating the marketplace on when and where each technology fits best, especially since many organisations might need any combination of FCIP, FC, iSCSI and iFCP to meet all their specific networked storage needs. And, finally, the fundamental point to remember when talking about storage is that it isn’t a “one size fits all” philosophy. Instead, networked storage solutions must be, and now can be, adapted as much as possible to meet each customer’s unique requirements.

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