For the past two years, subcommittees of the Internet Engineering Task Force have been working feverishly to develop specifications to enable businesses to exploit storage protocols over IP networks.
Now that the development effort is almost done, the real work begins.
The transition of the iSCSI, iFCP (Internet Fibre Channel Protocol) and FCIP (Fibre Channel over IP) specifications this month and next month from their development phases to the IETFs approval phases should fool nobody into thinking that products are ready or truly interoperable, industry experts say. The approval phase—which should lead to industrywide standardization—could last longer than the two-year development period did, and the numerous and well-hyped laboratory trials are very different from real-world implementations.
First, the IETFs Steering Group mandates a two-week Last Call period, and then protocols enter a Request for Comment phase three months later. Thats followed by the Proposed Standard stage, during which vendor interoperability is proved. If two sets of two different vendors can each prove interoperability with the specification, a Draft Standard is established. After two more years, there can be an official standard.
Meanwhile, "what will likely happen is that we will have varying levels of compliance. The marketers will say, Were IP-compliant, asterisk," said Elizabeth Rodriguez, the IETFs IP Storage Working Group co-chair, in Allen, Texas.
From IBM to unknown startups, that has already begun, Rodriguez said.
The most mature of the specifications is iSCSI, born in early 2000. iSCSI replaces the physical connections between storage devices and servers with SCSI commands over TCP/IP connections, said John Hufferd, iSCSI committee technical coordinator and senior technical staff member for architectures and strategies at IBMs Storage Systems Group, in San Jose, Calif.
"Its just a protocol of certain bit stuff over TCP/IP," so unlike iFCP and FCIP, "all the tough stuff was done, we had a much cleaner thing to focus on," Hufferd said. Engineers from Cisco Systems Inc., IBM and Intel Corp. worked on iSCSI before it was even taken to the IETF, and 250 companies were involved as early as August 2000, he said.
The last details being worked out are security, framing and RDMA (remote data memory addressing), other contributors said.
"Security was something that we did not have to face with SCSI or with Fibre Channel. Though we knew some IP stuff, this security was a thing of its own," Hufferd said.
But the framing and RDMA technologies might not be finished in time for Last Call and will have to be added later, other contributors said.
"What were up against is coming out into ... a mature environment in Fibre Channel," Hufferd said. Fibre Channel will continue to sell in data centers, but it has nowhere to grow beyond that; meanwhile, iSCSI will likely begin with edge installations and creep inward and will be dominant by 2006, he said.
Also on the horizon is iFCP, which uses the same general approach as iSCSI to send commands over IP but does so for Fibre Channel commands in SANs (storage area networks). "We are at Version 10 right now," said Technical Coordinator Franco Travostino, director of Nortel Networks Corp.s Content Internetworking Lab, Advanced Technology Investments, in Billerica, Mass. "We had a fair amount of scrutiny, especially on the security part, [but] there may be changes in Fibre Channel that require new work."
However, "One of the primary iFCP goals is to support legacy devices, so we obviously cannot just jump on new things and ignore the old. There is a high degree of entropy there," Travostino said.
The third significant specification, FCIP, is a tunneling method for connecting geographically distributed Fibre Channel SANs. On that front, security is the main thing still uncompleted, said Murali Rajagopal, the FCIP groups technical coordinator to the IETF.
"The standard in terms of the overall schemes of things is complete," Rajagopal said. A need to tweak security issues wont stop vendors from applying the standard immediately, he said.
Virtually no end users possess or have actually paid for end-to-end IP storage products yet. Several vendors are developing iSCSI products based on the .8 or .9 specifications, but those products have appeared only at demonstrations, at OEM partners and at isolated end-user pilot programs.
Cisco and Nishan Systems Inc., both of San Jose, are among the very few companies with actual products for sale. Established companies such as Adaptec Inc., of Milpitas, Calif., and Emulex Corp., of Costa Mesa, Calif., echo the vast majority of their peers with more realistic claims of general availability by this fall.
John Studdard, chief technology officer of VirtualBank, a division of First Virtual Inc., in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., runs a multiterabyte EMC shop. "Were running on the old school and have no plans to change any time soon. It would require us to probably migrate our infrastructure; were on the three-to-five-year plan, at least," Studdard said. "Its sad to say, because were a very cutting-edge shop, but thats the one area that we dont pay much attention to the marketplace because we have a substantial investment."
However, if a credible leader such as EMC, of Hopkinton, Mass., does make significant inroads, "I wouldnt see it as something to be scared of at all," Studdard said. "It definitely would drive the cost down."