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Thu 14 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Using iSCSI

Simplified IT management can be crucial to success for small businesses with limited resources.

Simplified IT management can be crucial to success for small businesses with limited resources.

Although small and medium businesses (SMBs), remote offices, and enterprise departments and workgroups have many of the same IT requirements as large enterprises, their limited resources can make it difficult to meet those requirements.

As data growth rates continue to spiral upward, these organisations strive to meet their storage needs with limited budgets and small staffs, while simultaneously maintaining high levels of utilisation and availability and managing robust backup and recovery processes.

Simplified IT management can be crucial to success.

And because IT staff members may be performing multiple roles in these environments, simplified IT management can be critical to success.

Traditional attempts to meet scalability requirements within such constraints have typically included increasing storage capacity by adding servers and deploying additional tape drives.

However, these approaches have their own disadvantages; in environments with single-application servers, for example, adding servers can result in poor storage utilisation with some servers overflowing (such as e-mail systems) and others hardly utilised at all (such as Web servers).

SMBs and similar organisations are constantly looking for technologies that can provide the capabilities they need while remaining both easy to manage and cost-effective.

Internet SCSI (iSCSI)-based storage is designed to meet these requirements. By providing an entry point into storage area network (SAN) systems that allows these organisations to use standard, cost-effective Ethernet components rather than investing in a Fibre Channel infrastructure, iSCSI is well suited for their needs.

Understanding storage in small and medium businesses

Many SMBs, remote offices, and enterprise departments and workgroups have been relying principally on direct attach storage (DAS) - a simple and logical first step when expanding capacity beyond servers' internal storage.

However, this approach carries a number of disadvantages: it can only handle a limited number of attached hosts, can quickly become unwieldy to manage, and can require investment in additional disk- or tape-based storage systems as capacity requirements rise, resulting in overall poor capacity utilisation. Consolidating to a networked storage environment such as a SAN can help avoid these disadvantages, enabling many hosts to share resources and simplifying management.

Organisations that find themselves working with multiple storage silos not optimised for their needs, having trouble scaling to accommodate data growth, or relying on burdensome backup and data protection processes based on multiple DAS systems are excellent candidates for storage consolidation.
The same is true for remote offices and enterprise departments and workgroups that have been struggling to manage decentralised storage in different locations.For these types of organisations, storage that is simple, capable, and cost-effective is key to success.

In the past, they may have considered implementing a traditional Fibre Channel-based SAN to help increase utilisation and simplify expansion.

Fibre Channel does offer significant performance advantages in some environments, particularly those running applications with sequential I/O such as streaming media and decision support software. However, a Fibre Channel infrastructure also requires an investment in both hardware and training that may place it beyond the reach of organisations with limited resources.

An iSCSI-based SAN, in contrast, can provide the same advantages as a Fibre Channel-based SAN (including reduced total cost of ownership, increased capacity utilisation, minimised backups, and simple manageability), but at a reduced acquisition cost. And iSCSI can provide high levels of performance comparable to Fibre Channel for many real-world applications common to SMBs, such as those with random I/O like Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft SQL Server software.

It offers comparable security to Fibre Channel when configured properly by logically or physically separating the iSCSI network. And its use of standard Ethernet components rather than specialised hardware makes iSCSI easy to manage for organisations with limited IT staff resources.

iSCSI also offers a high degree of flexibility, enabling administrators to integrate it into many different types of environments. The iSCSI protocol itself is widely supported by many common operating systems, applications, and other platforms, including Microsoft Windows and Linux as well as Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Cluster Service, Oracle Real Application Clusters (RAC), and VMware virtualisation software.

Consolidating through iSCSI-based storage can help simplify storage management while meeting the needs of SMBs and similar organisations in multiple ways. For SMBs implementing their first SAN, it can help them simplify management, reduce hardware and energy costs, and take advantage of common storage platforms for multiple applications without requiring a Fibre Channel implementation.

For remote offices, departments, and workgroups in large enterprises, iSCSI can serve as a cost-effective second-tier SAN.

In either case, it offers distinct advantages over both traditional DAS and Fibre Channel-based SANs, particularly for organisations constrained by limited staff and budget resources.

Deploying iSCSI-based storage arrays

Cost-effective, industry-standard iSCSI-based storage systems can help meet the needs of SMBs, remote offices, and enterprise departments and workgroups looking to consolidate and simplify their storage environment.
These types of arrays are particularly well suited for those upgrading from DAS systems and implementing a SAN for the first time, offering the benefits of consolidated SAN storage through a standard Ethernet infrastructure without requiring the investment in hardware and expertise typically required when implementing a Fibre Channel-based infrastructure.

Industry-standard arrays may also offer simple, powerful management tools, as well as high-availability and advanced data-protection features.

These features may include redundant components, multipath failover, and support for backup and recovery processes.

Figure 2, for example, shows an environment utilising fully redundant paths to multiple hosts by using iSCSI over standard Gigabit Ethernet switches.

Building capable, cost-effective iSCSI-based SANs

Although SMBs, remote offices, and enterprise departments and workgroups can benefit significantly from networked storage, limited staff and budget resources have often placed traditional Fibre Channel-based SANs out of reach.

For these organisations, iSCSI may be the answer. By enabling networked storage over standard Ethernet components, iSCSI can offer advantages such as simplified management, efficient utilisation, and easy scalability without requiring the investment in hardware and expertise typically required with Fibre Channel.

For SMBs and similar organisations, deploying iSCSI-based SANs can provide a cost-effective way to help ease management tasks, reduce ongoing hardware and energy costs, and build a flexible, consolidated storage environment.

Travis Vigil is a product marketing strategist for Dell iSCSI and Dell PowerConnect solutions. He has nearly 10 years of experience with technology companies including Intel and Dell, and was most recently the product manager for Dell PowerVault disk storage.

He has a B.S. from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Edited with permission from Dell Power Solutions magazine, November 2007. Copyright © 2007 Dell Inc. All rights reserved. Dell iSCSI storage solutions: www.dell.com/iSCSI

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