iSCSI SANs: Benefits, challenges and reseller opportunities

iSCSI SANs offer SMBs an affordable way for multiple servers to share access to storage. In this Q&A, Henry Baltazar, a storage analyst with The 451 Group, discusses iSCSI SAN advantages, challenges and reseller opportunities therein.

iSCSI adoptions appear to be climbing steadily. Is that what you are seeing?
We don't do market numbers, but we do follow individual companies. We've definitely seen traction; most of the startups we've talked to that are in the iSCSI space are ramping up customers, and a couple of them, like Left Hand for example, are up to 2,500 customers. I think EqualLogic is around that number as well. What's driving the increase?
iSCSI is better in the SMB space because it's simpler and less expensive than Fibre Channel. I think what is driving the move to iSCSI is that a lot of people are still using direct-attached storage (DAS). A lot of small companies are using storage that's already dumped into their servers. The problem with DAS is that the storage is bound to a server. Let's say you have a database server and you have an email server; if you have a ton of emails and that space has run out, you can't just grab space from the database server to use on the email server.

Also, availability is a problem. If the email server goes down, a lot of storage is just gone. The benefit of going to an iSCSI, or any kind of SAN, model is that you are able to have a storage unit that can share those resources appropriately to fit the need of the specific servers. That way, the storage isn't bound to single server. You can share as much as you want. And if you need to change, you can just move the storage over to another server. Would you recommend it for disaster recovery?
iSCSI is a definitely a good disaster recovery tool since it uses IP to replicate data over WAN links. Customers with two or more offices could use iSCSI to replicate data between them to protect their data. Should channel professionals be looking for opportunities to sell iSCSI SANs services or to offer iSCSI SANs services?
There are definitely reasons to sell. It is a big improvement over DAS. You're going to get better storage utilization and better storage sharing. The second benefit is the data protection element with replication. Replication is a good thing for DR. Also, if you are thinking about availability in general, a lot of these iSCSI products today have snapshots. That's a really good benefit too, because if you make a mistake and delete data, or if you get a virus, you would be able to take a snapshot and go back and fix the data, which is very important – even for small shops.

VMware and server virtualization is also driving the adoption of iSCSI. Let's say you have a VMware server and it's using DAS and you have 10 servers on it, if that server goes down, you've just lost 10 servers. iSCSI is allowing people to set up multiple VMware servers and have virtual machine images stored on the iSCSI device itself. The benefit of this is if you do have something that goes wrong with the server -- let's say it's a bad power supply, or bad processor and it goes down -- then there are tools available so that you can automatically migrate data to another server. You can't do that in a DAS environment. The shared storage element is very important in that environment. Are there services that systems integrators or VARs could offer that stem from iSCSI SANs?
Many SME customers, specifically those coming from DAS environments, do not really know how to optimize iSCSI storage devices for their application workloads. Resellers could help these customers by designing implementations with redundancy and scalability for future growth. Is the services end something channel professionals could build a business on?
Not so much in services, but storage is a core technology; everybody has to have storage. When it comes to partner programs, there are a lot of different ways to go. There are a bunch of startups out there that are selling iSCSI and that are pretty competitive. Of the smaller group, there's StoneFly, there's DATA Tech, there's Compellent, EqualLogic and LeftHand Networks. On the higher end, all of the server vendors are selling iSCSI solutions today: HP, Dell, IBM. There are also storage providers. IP HDS recently came out with a new iSCSI unit, so they are trying to come into the SMB market with that. NetApp and EMC have been pretty active in the market as well. Those are options for resellers that want to sell their boxes pre-made.

There are also options in terms of software for integrators who want to be able to build their own iSCSI boxes. A couple of vendors are providing software that allows integrators to turn servers into iSCSI storage systems. Wasabi Systems and Open-E are offering their iSCSI software packaged in a USB key. To convert a server into an iSCSI system, an integrator simply has to insert the USB key into the server and configure their system to boot off of the USB key. iSCSI's ease of use can be a security problem. Should people be concerned about the reliability of iSCSI SANs storage, if it tends to be more accessible?
That's a legitimate concern. Usually it's recommended that you keep the iSCSI SAN on a different network, so that you'd have a different switch doing the storage networking from the TCP/IP. Fibre Channel is a totally different network. That's why it's able to exist without people worrying about stealing storage off of it -- if you're not on the network, you can't really steal storage. It's really a management issue; management systems allows you to block out who can and can't connect. It's also a matter of how you are setting up the permissions for your admin accounts, making sure you have a real password there and that not everybody has the password.

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