ISCSI replacing Fibre Channel as dominant storage network technology

ISCSI is on its way to becoming the dominant technology for storage area networks in SMBs, nudging Fibre Channel into a corner for high-performance applications only.

Although less than a decade old, iSCSI storage is already the prevailing choice for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as large companies looking to milk their existing Fibre Channel storage area networks (SAN) before decommissioning them completely for IP-centric storage. And within five years, iSCSI will replace Fibre Channel as the dominant storage networking technology, according to analysts and storage solution providers interviewed by SearchStorage.com.

"There will be some applications with the type of IOPS that need Fibre Channel, but users will eventually treat it as a tier and buy only as much as is really required," says Andrew Reichman, an analyst with Forrester Research, who tracks data storage systems and storage management. "People should be judicious and test iSCSI but use it as much as they can."

Storage solution provider Eagle Software Inc. sold about $2 million worth of iSCSI storage last year, so it's understandable that Dave Hiechel, president and CEO of the reseller, is bullish on iSCSI. "It will dominate the market within five years," he says. "The only change will be if the Fibre Channel folks dramatically drop their prices."

No one expects that to happen any time soon. According to some observers, Fibre Channel companies maintain artificially high prices, thereby closing off the majority of the market and driving users to iSCSI storage in droves. Fibre Channel component prices are "outrageously high" and over-priced, according to Paul Clifford, president of The Davenport Group, a storage reseller. "I'm very upset with the Fibre Channel industry for keeping the price of [HBA] cards artificially high when everything else has fallen over the last seven to eight years," he says. "It's absolutely ridiculous."

According to a new study by Forrester, host bus adapters (HBA) still cost between $1,100 and $1,400 a card. Similarly, Fibre Channel director class switches cost $1,500 per port and fabric switches go for around $650 per Fibre Channel port. However, Reichman notes that a Cisco Catalyst 6500 Ethernet switch costs only $250 per port, and that price difference extends down to the cabling. Twenty feet of CAT6 Ethernet cable costs about $12 and from $50 to $150 for the same quantity of Fibre Channel cable. "In every category, iSCSI is favorable," he says.

SAN outages are often related to the HBA, Reichman notes. "You buy a multimillion dollar SAN and it's brought down by the HBA because it did not come factory installed," he says. On the other hand, iSCSI HBAs are becoming a standard component in many servers.

Ethernet-based iSCSI is a natural fit for many companies that do not have Fibre Channel expertise in-house. To Greg Knierieman, vice president of marketing and business development at Chi Corp., a specialist in storage networking solutions, iSCSI's success in the midmarket is "really a no-brainer. You get enterprise-class features at half the price of a Fibre Channel system and without the interoperability headaches." Ease of use has helped drive adoption of iSCSI in VMware environments where Fibre Channel has not played well to date.

In an effort to prolong the life of Fibre Channel, industry giants, such as Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., EMC Corp., Emulex Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), IBM and Intel Corp., recently proposed a standard that will allow Fibre Channel to be carried over 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) networks. Called Fibre FCoE, this proposal is still on the drawing board. In fact, it's at best at least two years out, which gives iSCSI plenty of time to seep into every corner of the data center, slowly putting the nail into the coffin of Fibre Channel.

This was first published in October 2007

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