Can IP Storage Save the Day?

The technology sector is going through tough times. Major vendors are laying off thousands of people, and a conservative cloud has settled on new technology acquisitions. Even the storage industry, once thought to be immune to general market fluctuations, is feeling the effects of the current uncertainty. Good times or bad, however, enterprises must enhance data availability and find new means to meet their data-storage requirements.

Storage Networking Challenges
The continued adoption of storage-networking solutions confirms the value of Storage Area Networks (SANs) for a variety of end-user data applications. Still, storage networking has penetrated only 15 percent of the market, primarily in larger enterprises. To satisfy the needs of small and midsized businesses—especially in these trying economic times—storage-networking technologies must dramatically reduce the cost of deploying and supporting SAN solutions—something technology vendors have found difficult, for several reasons.

As long as storage networking requires specialized products, profit margins can be artificially high. Some vendors have discouraged interoperability and open-systems compliance to maintain a lock on customers. Such a practice creates a significant difference between the costs associated with SANs and the costs of using other storage and networking components. Fibre channel switches, for example, are still more than twice as expensive per port as Gigabit Ethernet switches.

SANs' high acquisition cost is a primary concern, but ongoing management and support is the real burden for customers. Management software for fibre channel SANs has improved but still lags behind mainstream data-communications technology. Fibre channel fabric-based SANs require IT expertise that's difficult to find and retain. Although a large enterprise might be able to staff fibre channel experts to maintain its systems, the small and midsized businesses that comprise the bulk of the storage market often can't. These businesses face the same challenges as large enterprises in terms of data availability and storage, but they hesitate to choose solutions that they might not be able to sustain.

IP Storage: Opportunities and Challenges
SAN products based on TCP/IP promise to overcome the limitations and costs associated with fibre channel. If IP storage can deliver on its promise, large enterprises will adopt storage networking more quickly, and small and midsized businesses will find networked storage within their reach. But can IP storage live up to its marketing promises and save the day in the face of uncertain budgets and staffing?

The technical challenges that IP storage must resolve include preserving data integrity across potentially unstable IP networks and reducing or eliminating TCP processing on host systems. The Internet Fibre Channel Protocol (iFCP), the Internet SCSI (iSCSI) protocol, and other standards initiatives are addressing data-integrity issues. Chip-based TCP/IP offload engines (TOEs) are addressing TCP processing. In terms of acquisition costs, using existing lower-cost Gigabit Ethernet switches for SAN applications provides an immediate cost savings compared to fibre channel fabrics. In terms of ongoing management and support, using standard IP network-management tools for storage traffic significantly reduces the management overhead associated with SANs. As IP storage products come to market, customers will be able to use mainstream IP technology to solve their storage challenges more easily—and less expensively.

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