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Economical iSCSI Storage Area Networks Appearing In More Large Business Operations

An affordable iSCSI storage area network can power enterprise-class business continuity.

For years the ugly stepsister of the data center, storage and storage administration slowly sapped productivity until storage vendor EMC found a way to make storage area networks (SANs) sexy. Then, Sept. 11 happened, followed by Hurricane Katrina, turning geeky storage topics like disaster recovery and business continuity into household words.

But many financial services firms were still stranded on the sidelines. The dominant SAN infrastructure, Fibre Channel (FC), was astronomically expensive and complex -- both initially and long term -- putting it beyond the reach of most small and midsize organizations.

Fortunately, Ethernet, the technology that powers LANs, also was undergoing critical transformations. Most important, performance was improved significantly with the introduction of "Gig-E," the speedy data transfer protocol that runs at 1 gigabit per second. This advance, coupled with the ubiquitous adoption of Internet Protocol (IP), spawned an affordable plug-and-play storage option called the iSCSI SAN.

When iSCSI interlopers came to market roughly five years ago, the FC players quickly began spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) to protect their position. Most often, the FUD claimed that iSCSI SANs always degraded system performance, thereby creating more IT headaches than they solved.

Seismic Shift

Despite the nay-saying, as iSCSI technologies have improved and the cost differentials climbed, even the mightiest Fortune 500s have started turning to these new SANs. "We're seeing iSCSI SANs deployed right next to FC SANs," says Tony Asaro, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG). "ISCSI SANs are handling the growing reliance on Microsoft's E-mail, database and other capacity-intensive applications."

"Our latest studies show the total cost of iSCSI SAN infrastructure is running from a half to a tenth as much as FC," adds Forrester Research analyst Andrew Reichman, a former consultant on behalf of EMC. "This price differential, combined with improvements that iSCSI vendors are making with IP networking issues like flow control, is causing iSCSI SANs to be attractive even if they're only used for 10 percent of an enterprise's storage capacity."

Not surprisingly, such economies also began solving dilemmas at smaller companies, such as the 150-employee brokerage, wealth management and venture capital firm Wolverton Securities. "New regulations required us to have a continuity plan by July 2006 that guaranteed customer records access within 48 hours," explains Kellan Newsam, CIO of the Vancouver, B.C.-headquartered company, which has six locations throughout Canada. "When the law was passed in 2005, all of our data storage was decentralized direct-attached storage (DAS). This severely limited our continuity options, such as replicating between our headquarters and our main Alberta office in Calgary."

Due to the cost of deploying FC infrastructure, Microsoft LAN-based Wolverton considered network attached storage (NAS). "But we decided NAS wasn't for us because we wanted to isolate storage-related traffic, including backup, recovery, archiving and data security," notes Newsam. "NAS is a part of the network LAN and can create significant bottlenecks. But a SAN separates storage chores from the LAN by moving them onto their own network."

Then Wolverton began considering iSCSI SANs and hit pay dirt. "The entry point was in the low five figures versus the low six figures for FC," Newsam says. "Plus, we didn't need special certifications and ongoing recertifications in order to maintain the service contracts. And we didn't need the pricey FC connectivity equipment."

Wolverton turned to its technology partner, Seven Group, for advice, and subsequently researched the integrator's recommendation: EqualLogic. "We looked at EqualLogic because our research showed they were innovators in the space," states Newsam. "Their presentation checked all the same boxes as FC but at less than 50 percent of the cost. And FC would have required increasing our IT head count by one or two. But with iSCSI there was none. Although the SAN hardware required more up-front investment than NAS, our CFO quickly saw the value due to all the other organizational goals a SAN would facilitate." [Ed. Note: Due to a filing of an IPO registration statement, EqualLogic declined to comment for this article.]

Indeed, the 48-hour availability regulation wasn't the only Wolverton project the SAN enabled. "With other regulations requiring more transparency and long-term retention of data, we were dramatically increasing document digitization and process automation to become less dependent on paper sitting in filing cabinets," Newsam comments. "Plus, we run a lot of mission-critical databases -- Oracle, SQL and PostgreSQL -- and our network architecture includes a Unix trading server as well as various applications running on Linux. Deploying a SAN provided a cost-effective way to consolidate and secure data for all of these heterogeneous subsystems and operating systems."

After a 30-day onsite trial of an EqualLogic 3.5 terabyte box, Wolverton decided to invest in the technology. "Our initial migration in July 2006 took about 10 days and was uneventful," Newsam relates. "Since then, the SAN has been on cruise control."

With the first SAN in place, Wolverton purchased and deployed a second unit in November 2006 at its Calgary data center. Replication between the two centers, as well as nondisruptive testing, has been ongoing as IT continues to move subsystems onto the SAN, according to Newsam. "Now we're starting to digitize all records from the past 10 years," he says. "And we'll ultimately become fully compliant with regulations that require any open file to have complete records going back indefinitely."

In addition, Wolverton has deployed a new accounting system that wouldn't have operated efficiently in a DAS-based environment, Newsam adds. Microsoft Exchange data also has been migrated to the SAN. "Now we have all of our mission-critical data on the SAN," Newsam continues. "By the end of the year we'll have tested our capability to completely failover to Calgary and operate the entire organization from there."

On the Horizon

Newsam says he is considering archiving to optical WORM (write once, read many) DVD media via the SAN. This will further improve data availability and reduce secure data management burdens, he explains. "By adopting a SAN we've gone far beyond our initial goals," emphasizes Newsam. "It's not just about having our IT department sleep better at night. Among other things, our organization has adopted industry-leading best practices, such as creating living customer records to enable the highest quality of customer service."

But what about the IT improvements that an iSCSI SAN promised? "It's been a great technology for us," Newsam says. "Sure, if we had thousands of users pounding on hundreds of applications, iSCSI may not have been the way to go. But with tens of applications for 150 users, it's really done its job. Plus, it's providing us with outstanding security and organizational risk reduction, too."

Wolverton's situation mirrors the experiences of others, say industry observers. "Due to the early adopters, there are thousands of production installations," ESG's Asaro points out. "Where there were only a few innovators five years ago, an entire ecosystem has been built in the iSCSI space. And for any technology to become mainstream, such an ecosystem must be in place."

In fact, the next iSCSI evolution -- turbocharged speed -- is on the horizon, Forrester's Reichman reports. "The cost of 10-Gbit Ethernet infrastructure is coming down," he says. "We're particularly seeing advances in this area by Woven Systems. We fully expect 10G Ethernet to become competitive at a cost point below FC. When it does, iSCSI will be very compelling not just as an alternative, but as a replacement to Fibre Channel altogether."

Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's Bank Systems & Technology, Insurance & Technology and Wall Street & Technology ... View Full Bio

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