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Fibre Channel SAN drops in buying intention survey; iSCSI SANs make gains

FC SAN loses the title of top overall storage platform choice in our Purchasing Intentions survey, yet it still leads in the server virtualization space. iSCSI SANs, meanwhile, continue to make gains.

Fibre Channel (FC) SAN is no longer the top storage system of choice for many IT admins, according to a Storage magazine/ Purchasing Intentions survey conducted this past spring. In the survey, only 43% of 687 respondents said that they’re running a Fibre Channel SAN, behind NAS at 58% and with iSCSI SANs (42%) trailing both.

While Fibre Channel’s 43% in the buying intention survey may be a bit of an anomaly (in last fall’s survey, 57% reported having Fibre Channel gear installed), it’s clearly on a downward path: In 2008, 70% of 551 respondents said they had Fibre Channel equipment installed, while 56% had NAS and 27% had iSCSI.

In a server virtualization environment specifically, meanwhile, FC is still the most popular choice, at 34%, but that number has dropped from its 50% perch of the past four years. At the same time, there’s been an increase in Ethernet-based storage to support virtual servers, with 35% of respondents reporting that preference this year (21% iSCSI and 14% NAS in 2012 compared with, respectively, 11.5% and 8.5% in 2008).  

So does that mean Fibre Channel is on the way out? Not according to the VARs we spoke with.

In a server virtualization environment specifically, FC is still the most popular choice at 34%, but that number has dropped from its 50% perch of the past four years.

Paul Clifford, president of St. Paul, Minn.-based Davenport Group -- which sells both Dell EqualLogic iSCSI SAN storage and Dell Compellent Fibre Channel SAN storage -- predicts FC use will remain strong. He argues that once IT directors, particularly those who manage enterprise and midmarket data centers, have invested in a FC-based SAN, they’re not likely to leave the technology -- and in fact, there’s even a preference for it. 

“No one is running from FC. People who have invested [in it are] not leaving it. [When] you go into the enterprise space, they’re running FC,” Clifford said. “There’s a need, a preference for it. People like it. It works.”

In terms of front-end connectivity, Clifford said that the choice between 10 GB iSCSI and 8 GB FC is a matter of customer preference and that there isn’t much difference between the two.

And Jamie Shepard, the executive vice president of global consulting and systems integrations firm International Computerware Inc. (ICI), said that looking at his clients’ choices -- clients that consist of global, national, regional and SMB customers -- for block storage needs, he still sees FC storage on the rise, especially with the recent release of 16 GB FC, and iSCSI SAN storage tags close behind.

“We see a lot of customers continuing to [build] SANs based on FC, but also SANs on iSCSI, which delivers FC block over Internet Protocol (IP). We have seen a trend in a rapid adoption in NAS and iSCSI technology in the midmarket/SMB space … and FC adoption in the higher-end [block storage] space,” Shepard explained.

Impact of server virtualization

The growing ubiquity of server virtualization and its consequent impact on the storage needs of a data center have also been a driver in the adoption of storage technologies other than FC, although the latter remains the dominant protocol.

Shepard said that ICI customers who manage storage in virtual server environments predominantly use FC as their storage protocol. But, “we’re seeing a lot of iSCSI and NFS. And then now, FCoE is making a big push into that space,” he acknowledged.

Clifford agreed, saying that server virtualization has propelled storage teams to pursue technology that can better accommodate the large amounts of traffic being directed toward fewer servers.

“[Server virtualization] has driven the need for larger pipes coming up the back end, [and now] it’s split between FC and 10 GB [iSCSI] on the midmarket. In the SMB market, there’s still iSCSI going in,” Clifford said.

Move toward simplicity

Constraints on storage budgets are not only apparent with regard to equipment choices -- there’s also the matter of human resources and how large and dedicated a particular data center’s storage team is, their skill set, or the investment it takes to get to that level. A storage protocol’s complexity could put a strain on limited resources. The people we spoke with pointed to that as a factor in Fibre Channel’s decreasing numbers in the SMB space, which we define as companies with less than $1 billion in revenue. Sixty-two percent of respondents to the 2008 buying intention survey had FC equipment installed, versus 39% in this year’s survey.

“Most of the people on the low end and SMB [are] good network/server people, and … they want to introduce storage that plugs into [their] network; [that’s] why we’re seeing a huge increase [in systems other than FC],” Shepard said. “People have limited resources and they don’t have time to cross-train their people. Storage should be about simplicity and ease of use; it shouldn’t be about complexity.”

Shepard said that since enterprises have more developed resources, and a greater number of them, their storage teams are able to be a bit more focused and dedicated. “You have a storage group, then a server group. With a smaller company, that’s one person.” Since smaller staffs at SMBs don’t necessarily have this wealth of resources, they might be more willing to try an alternative type shared storage — one that is simpler to install and implement.

Chris Kerr, account manager for federal VAR Swish Data, agreed that the size of an infrastructure could be a major factor in their storage systems purchases.

“Budget-conscious infrastructures would certainly be looking -- and it’s going to be smaller, with less users -- would be much more willing to look at iSCSI SAN, especially when their FC SAN is old,” said Kerr. “They’ve got to upgrade it, and they’re going to look at something that’s much easier.”

Like Clifford, however, he agrees that Fibre Channel SAN continues to be the giant in storage protocols because the technology has been around for a long time.

“I believe that there is an old school of thought that probably, if you had to ask the best of the best and money wasn’t an object, ‘Tell me what your SAN infrastructure looks like,’ they’d probably say, ‘Oh, an 8 [Gbps] FC infrastructure.’ I think it holds that spot in people’s minds, that it’s the old dog that’s still on top,” Kerr said.

In the end, it all comes back to how easily a particular type of architecture is suited to a specific customer, whether it’s an enterprise or SMB company.

“I don’t think we manage technology anymore; I think we manage change,” said Clifford. “My customers -- the CIOs and IT directors -- are trying to develop an architecture that can adapt to all of these changes. And that’s the biggest issue they face -- architecting and managing that change.”

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