“Storage is to schools what Miracle Grow is to gardens,” says Tom Walker, executive director of library and information services at Decorah, Iowa-based Luther College. “The more storage you put at the hands of academics, the more likely they are to fill it up with their projects.” Walker is hoping that IP storage, a promising new way of building storage area networks (SANs), will give his 2,600-student liberal arts school richer storage pastures.
IP storage, which uses the Internet to swiftly transport data from users to storage arrays around the world, is just beginning to emerge from the development mist. Cisco, CNT, IBM, Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks are among the many vendors that have invested deeply in IP storage and are just now starting to ship their first products based on the technology. “There’s a huge IP structure in place, and it only makes sense to take advantage of it,” says Brice Clark, a director of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Storage Networking Industry Association’s IP Storage Forum.
IP storage is designed to address the cost and performance deficiencies that are inherent in fibre channel (FC), the data transport technology that’s currently being used to build most SANs. But as IP storage system vendors try to grab a foothold in IT departments worldwide, questions remain about the field’s evolving standards and whether vendors’ cost savings, performance and deployment promises will pan out in the real world. “This is the next big push in terms of storage,” says Arun Taneja, a senior analyst at the Enterprise Storage Group, a Milford, Mass.-based storage industry research consultancy. “Not all the issues are resolved, but there is so much value in the concept that it’s worth working on it a bit.”
Although IP-based storage equipment isn’t always less expensive than FC hardware, IP technology can help organizations cut costs by using existing Internet-compatible hardware for storage. For example, a company could sidestep the need to purchase dedicated FC storage equipment by using its application servers to store data.
The technology can also help organizations lower employee overhead. “You can use your IP engineer to manage your storage network,” says Mark Cree, general manager of Cisco’s Minneapolis-based storage router business unit. “In the past, these storage experts would make at least 50 percent more than an IP engineer would.”
At Luther College, IP storage is a way to expand storage capacity without emptying the school’s bank account. “Fibre channel was well outside of our budget range,” says Walker, who instead turned to IP storage technology, including IBM’s IP Storage 200i, a storage array that attaches to the school’s Ethernet network.
Walker wasn’t as worried about the cost of gear as much as the expense of training his staff in FC technology. “The basic issue is that I don’t want to have to add another competency to my thinly spread staff,” he says. “My people use IP every day, day in and day out. They know it. They love it.”
Walker also doesn’t like the idea of buying in to a solution that would lock his department in to one vendor’s vision of a storage strategy. “In the education industry there’s a real phobia about building dependency on outsourced vendor relationships,” he says. “With IP storage, we’re free to easily mix products from different vendors.”
Faster, Farther, Safer
Reduced costs are only one side of the IP storage story. The technology also promises improvements in speed, geographic scope and even data security. On the speed front, IP storage’s current advantage is minimal. First-generation IP storage systems are designed to operate at speeds of up to 1.25Gbps?not much faster than FC, which maxes out around 1.06Gbps. But IP storage should get a push sometime next year, when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is expected to put its stamp of approval on a proposed 10Gbps Ethernet standard.
Perhaps even more impressive than IP storage’s potential for slashing costs and boosting speeds is its unlimited reach. While fibre channel technology limits its spans to about six miles, IP storage’s horizons are virtually unlimited, thanks to the Internet’s global scope. This means that an organization can arrange to have its data stored in another state, another country or another continent. “A global company can take advantage of storage space that’s available across the street or around the world,” says Enterprise Storage Group’s Taneja.
Another big benefit of IP storage is that it usually requires little or no additional investment in security. Leading security technologies, such as firewalls and virus scanners, which most organizations already use to protect their Internet data transfers, can also be applied to safeguarding IP storage data. “You can view it as kind of a built-in protection,” says Cisco’s Cree.
A Storage World Divided
While industry experts are virtually unified in their praise of IP storage as a concept, the field itself is divided into two camps, each supporting a protocol that’s incompatible with the other. The Internet small computer system interface (ISCSI) allows the transport of SCSI I/O traffic over standard IP networks, such as Gigabit Ethernet, and is designed to bring plug-and-play simplicity to networked storage devices. “It’s made of building blocks that people can deal with,” says Paul Mattson, ISCSI business manager for IBM’s Raleigh, N.C.-based storage networking team. IBM, Cisco and Nortel are among ISCSI’s proponents.
The Internet FC protocol (IFCP), on the other hand, allows native fibre channel devices to be connected to an IP network. The IFCP protocol, supported by Lucent Technologies and several other companies, is designed to appeal to organizations that have an existing investment in FC technology.
While the flexibility of the ISCSI standard gives it the best long-term prospects, most experts view IFCP as the near-term winner. This is because IP storage switches and related products will allow organizations to extend their existing FC SANs across metropolitan area networks (MANs) and WANs without distance limitations. “IFCP lets you enter IP storage without junking everything you have,” says Taneja.
Although choosing IFCP may be a no-brainer for an organization with an existing FC investment, the choice isn’t as obvious for CIOs just stepping in to the network storage market. Given the absence of a clear-cut standard, there’s always the chance of picking Beta over VHS and facing trouble down the road. “This may mean additional cost and even downtime in the future in order to upgrade the system,” says Robert Passmore, a storage analyst at Gartner in Stamford, Conn.
Despite the hoopla surrounding IP storage, many storage industry observers are skeptical that the technology can live up to its supporters’ extravagant cost-cutting and performance-boosting promises. With equipment just hitting the streets, real-world benchmarks haven’t yet been established, so vendors are free to live in a theoretical wonderland. “It’s hard to compare performance right now because it’s not the same, so it gets into an apples and oranges kind of thing,” Passmore says.
Min Christopherson, IT director at DNA Sciences, a Fremont, Calif.-based genetics research company, hopes the IP storage system he started working on late last year will help him cut costs, but he isn’t sure just how much money he’ll save. “It’s not fair to crunch numbers right now, because there’s so much more to this technology than just the equipment cost,” he says.
One of the extras IP storage gives its adopters is the headache of network latency?the time between initiating a request for data and the beginning of the actual transfer. High latency times can degrade performance to well below FC levels. But latency woes are solely a network problem, claims Wayne Lam, vice president of marketing for IP storage vendor FalconStor in Melville, N.Y. “If you have a well-designed network, latency isn’t an issue,” he says. “You can’t blame IP storage for this.”
Another potential trouble spot is IP storage’s impact on an organization’s existing network resources. CIOs need to carefully assess the state of their IP networks before committing to an IP storage strategy, says Mark Knittel, group vice president of worldwide product operations at Minneapolis-based storage networking vendor CNT. “IP storage is something of a bandwidth hog, and many IP networks aren’t able to handle this type of use.” Knittel notes that upon adopting IP storage, many organizations opt to send their storage data over a VPN rather than the Internet. A VPN provides added security and allows organizations to tailor network parameters for maximum efficiency.
Despite IP storage’s lingering uncertainties and demand for careful planning, many early adopters continue to praise the technology, although guardedly. “You need to have a vision,” says Christopherson. “You have to have a sound infrastructure and make sure that it’s ready.”
Luther College’s Walker says the technology requires a CIO to be both cautious and alert. “It’s all incredibly complex, so we’re moving slowly,” he says. “This is probably the most daring thing we’ve done in a long time.” n