Vendors Unveil IP Switches

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The evolution of IP storage is expected to get a major boost when the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) ratifies the iSCSI standard sometime this year, giving the go-ahead to more than 250 companies committed to developing versions of it. But, in the meantime, vendors such as Cisco Systems and Nishan Systems are testing the waters with a variety of switches that can transport storage data over an IP network.

Nishan Systems, which initially tried to establish market dominance by making its IFCP the standard of choice, is positioning itself as both an interim and long-term

player with its IP 2000, 3000 and 4000 switches. Heavyweight Cisco, in partnership with IBM, led the IP storage movement early on by developing the iSCSI protocol while at the same time bringing its prestandard SN 5420 storage router to market.

Ultimately, vendors are banking on customers' need for an alternative to the expensive and time-consuming Fibre Channel, which some experts say has actually slowed down the adoption of storage area networks (SANs).

"As the SAN industry was growing, people were always asking, 'Why can't I use IP and Ethernet?' The reason then was Gigabit Ethernet was not available," says Gary Orenstein, director of marketing at Nishan Systems. "And over time, it was because certain vendors were making a lot of money on Fibre Channel and did not want people to think you could use IP [for storage."

The iSCSI standard was slated for ratification late last year, but the deadline has slipped to next quarter, or the quarter thereafter. But while the IETF continues to work on the standard, some vendors are zeroing in on the likely areas of adoption. They anticipate ready acceptance of IP storage with customers looking to conduct distance replication over a wide area network, such as mirroring data between two locations that exist many miles apart.

The slowest area of adoption is likely to be in the local area network environments,namely transporting data within the data center,mainly because most SANs today are built on 1-Gb Fibre Channel speeds and those customers are more likely to move on to 2-Gb Fibre Channel upgrades rather than revamp their networks. More important, storage IT managers are more likely to let new technology bake in the oven longer before trying it.

"No one is really taking risks in the data center with their data [by using IP storage," says James Staten, Sun Microsystems' director of strategy.

Questions surrounding where IP storage is most suitable gives VARs and consultants a huge window of opportunity, Staten says.

"[Customers really need VARs more than ever," Staten says. "They are much more careful of what they buy now. CFOs are demanding more proof for making the right buying decisions."

In the end, experts say the fate of IP storage may rest on bringing together two groups of IT administrators who often don't speak the same language: network managers and storage managers. Nishan executives say success in convincing both parties of the merits of IP storage often hinges on getting the two together in the same room and making sure key technology issues are addressed.

"You watch the interaction between them," Orenstein says. "We might talk about partitioning and LUNs, and the storage guy will smile and nod his head while the network guy is scratching his head. But he sees his buddy is happy. Then we will talk about VLANs and the network guy is smiling and nodding while the storage guy is scratching his head. But they see each other's concerns are addressed, and it really takes off."

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