Dell blazes an iSCSI trail

During its five years as a mainstream business storage vendor, Dell has played a clever hand. At the low end – true to its high-volume, high-value model – its homegrown PowerVault range of commodity devices has helped make it the global leader in Windows and Linux storage.

At the high-end and upper mid-range, it has exploited a long-standing partnership with EMC to resell the storage giant’s Symmetrix and Clarion ranges – the success of which is shown by the fact that Dell now accounts for 12% of the storage giant’s revenues.

But that has left a gap where Dell has so far been unable to apply its classic go-to-market model. The EMC enterprise systems are oriented towards enterprise-centric fibre channel networking and, indeed, Dell has supported EMC’s contention that fibre channel interconnectivity is by far the fastest and most reliable means of moving data around the storage infrastructure – notwithstanding its high cost.

However, Dell has now put its cards on the table and bet that the world will move away from fibre channel (FC) to embrace iSCSI, the fast-evolving protocol that is used for moving data and messages across standard IP networks. And the consequences of Dell’s bet – that it can dominate mid-range storage with iSCSI, while growing the technology into the high-end – will be far-reaching.

Based on 2007 numbers, the company is already the market leader in iSCSI storage – through one of its own PowerVault products (the MD3000) and the dual FC/iSCSI capabilities built into most of the EMC products it resells. But its acquisition of iSCSI specialist EqualLogic in January 2008 has put considerable distance between itself and rivals.

The advantages of iSCSI are well-documented: it rationalises multiple network protocols into a unified fabric that serves storage, servers and desktop access networking; standard IP cabling can take the place of expensive fibre; switches and other supporting devices are typically less expensive than fibre channel equivalents; and maintenance and access to skills is easier.

Although it is supported in most enterprise storage systems (alongside FC), take-up to date has been far from universal. One reason is that standard equipment today only supports the transmission of data at 1 gigabit per second (1Gb).

The real catalyst for iSCSI adoption will be the long-promised arrival of a much faster interconnect. Even as fibre channel standards are moving from 2Gb to 4Gb, and in the future will hit 8Gb, iSCSI is about to shift to 10Gb. Aside from the increase in speed, the 10Gb protocol is said to have superior capabilities for virtualisation and to have overcome many of the quality-of-service issues that dampened take-up of the previous generations of iSCSI.

“Ten gigabit will be ubiquitous – guaranteed,” predicts John Joseph, vice president of marketing for Dell’s EqualLogic storage product line.

ISCSI is already the fastest growing interconnect in the storage market – albeit from a small base, he says, with the segment running at 62% expansion a year. But Dell’s goal goes much further than the dominance of the iSCSI market.

“Our aim is to change the economics of storage,” says Praveen Asthana, global director for Dell’s enterprise storage division. “Simple, capable, affordable: that is what we told our engineering organisation.”

It does not stop there, though. Asthana says the Ethernet community, which oversees iSCSI development, is looking at plans for 40Gb, with possibilities being considered for up to 100Gb. “The number of companies pushing R&D into Ethernet is just so many more than fibre channel,” he says. As well as Dell, that Ethernet camp includes industry giants Cisco, Intel, Broadcom and Huawei.

“In time, everyone will realise it is better to do everything in Ethernet,” he says.

The economics are already adding up. From a cost perspective, within a few months, Dell reckons that its 10Gb Ethernet product costs will be roughly in parity with 8Gb fibre. “In a couple of years it will be half the cost of fibre channel 8Gb,” says Asthana.
Most of Dell’s money is on iSCSI – but not all.

“The thing to understand is we are not shifting to an iSCSI [only] company. We have a balanced portfolio – fibre channel, iSCSI, direct attached storage… And you will continue to see products from us that will span all of these protocols,” says Asthana.

But don’t expect to see much of its R&D going into fibre. “The fibre-channel industry is realising it is getting harder and harder for them to increase the bandwidth,” says Asthana. That means they are looking at technologies that match what is happening on the Ethernet front: Data Centre Ethernet, FC-over-Ethernet (FCoE) and related technologies. “The fibre-channel vendors are trying to come up with a way of piggybacking the success of Ethernet,” says Asthana.

What that means for Dell’s relationship with EMC is still not clear. Dell is already the fastest-growing storage company among the five market leaders in the EMEA region.

By some reckonings, it has also become the market revenue leader in the UK for external disk storage for the first time, having overtaken HP in the first quarter.

That said, he thinks that the two winners in the protocol wars will be iSCSI and FCoE – although the latter has the disadvantage of requiring a large-scale infrastructure replacement: “We figure that if you are going to do a forklift upgrade to FCoE, then you might as well go all way to iSCSI.”

At this stage no one is suggesting the Dell/EMC partnership (highly lucrative for both parties) will come to an end, especially when high-end products are concerned. But in the mid-market the strain on that relationship is already beginning to show.

During EMC’s latest financial results conference call with analysts, CEO

Joe Tucci referred to having to address a “little bit of stalling, a little bit of constipation” in the Clarion sales channel that resulted from Dell’s acquisition of EqualLogic – an enterprise with an already well-developed iSCSI distribution network. Some “hard action” has fixed that, says Tucci. But there are going to be some interesting mid-range discussions between Dell and EMC in coming months and years.

And iSCSI will dominate those chats. “We feel a unified fabric is very important. The key thing is to get the cost economics right so [iSCSI] becomes much more widespread,” says Asthana.

One hint as to how Dell might achieve that universality: it is working with key partners – Intel and Cisco are the obvious names – to hardwire 10Gb Ethernet into the motherboards of Dell servers. That alone should make EMC management hearts run a little faster.

David Cliff

David Cliff is managing director of Houghton le Spring-based Gedanken, a company specialising in coaching-based support and personal development. Cliff is an experienced trainer, manager and therapist,...

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