How to buy an entry-level iSCSI SAN

Has your small business reached the point at which it needs a SAN? If so, this guide to simple SANs will make it easier to navigate your first purchase.

Sooner or later, IT managers at smaller businesses are likely to come up against the limitations of servers with integrated storage or direct-attached storage (DAS). They may need more capacity, higher performance, better utilisation of storage or advanced features such as replication, snapshots or thin provisioning.

For them, the next obvious step is networked storage, often a SAN-based storage array. However, for the SAN beginner, the assortment of choices in host bus adapters (HBAs), optical cabling, Fibre Channel (FC) switches and storage systems can be a bit overwhelming. The SAN-in-a-box -- an all-in-one storage kit -- is a simple solution for these new SAN admins.

The SAN-in-a-box has been around for several years, conceived as a way for those new to SAN storage to get all the components needed to create a basic SAN at once, including FC HBAs, a switch, cabling and a storage system.

A number of vendors offer these products and, in addition, iSCSI vendors argue with some truth that their products constitute a SAN-in-a-box, since the components required for their storage systems--Ethernet NICs in the servers, cabling and Ethernet switches--will already be available in even a basic server room.

While iSCSI systems are simpler to plumb for the SAN beginner, they're not without their own challenges. Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008 have built-in iSCSI support, but other network operating systems may require drivers to work with iSCSI, and connecting the server to the storage for the first time can be a trial, even when the client is built in. SMB-oriented iSCSI offerings include wizards to make the initial configuration as easy as possible, and in some cases, it can be quite transparent.

For users worried about the performance limitations of iSCSI, some iSCSI systems offer an upgrade path to FC, allowing users to begin with an easy to setup iSCSI system, and then add FC to the existing storage system if performance requirements demand.

FC SAN-in-a-box systems

The Hitachi Data Systems Simple Modular Storage 100 is a complete kit that offers all the parts necessary to assemble a basic SAN, as well as SAN management software. The product includes configuration wizards to aid with the installation. It includes some advanced functionality such as snapshots and optional remote copy capability. Pricing for the Hitachi Simple Modular Storage system starts at around $AUD5,000.

HP offers the StorageWorks 1000 Modular Smart Array Small Business SAN G2 Kit, which includes HBAs, FC switch, cabling and MSA1000 storage array. They also offer the HP StorageWorks 8Gb Simple SAN Connection Kit, which includes everything but the array. You can then add the MSA1000 or MSA2000 array.  The HP StorageWorks EVA iSCSI Connectivity Option allows any of the HP EVA Storage Array models to connect servers via iSCSI while also connected to a FC fabric.

NetApp's StoreVault S550 is a versatile system that includes FC, iSCSI and NAS functionality in one system, along with advanced storage functionality such as thin provisioning, snapshots, local and remote replication,. It also includes as well as optional specialized packages that simplify adding SAN storage to Exchange or MS SQL Server. The StoreVault Fibre Channel SAN Starter Kit consists of the StoreVault system, a QLogic FC switch, two SFPs and cables, connecting the target HBA to the switch, and HBAs for the servers. The SFPs are inserted in the switch to enable each port, and the cables to connect the switch to the server. Starting prices are not lightyears beyond $AUD5000.

iSCSI SAN-in-a-box systems

iSCSI offers a simpler way to add storage to multiple systems and get many of the same high-end features that are available in FC SAN storage. There's no need to buy HBAs, special cables or additional switches. Standard Ethernet NICs can be used to connect servers and the storage system, although iSCSI HBAs are available that can substantially reduce the load on servers attached to iSCSI storage. There are dozens of vendors offering storage arrays that support iSCSI as well as FC, in many cases simultaneously. The following systems are specifically oriented toward the SMB SAN novice, and offer software wizards and management software designed to make it easy to get started.

Dell has two offerings, the MD3000i and PS5000 Series from EqualLogic, now owned by Dell. In addition, Dell sells the EMC AX4 series. All of these systems are iSCSI, and the AX4 also supports FC.

The MD3000i is a basic iSCSI storage system designed for the beginner, with a wizard-based setup manager as well as advanced features including dual controllers and snapshots. With support for both SAS and SATA drives, it gives you the choice between high performance and high capacity. With a starting price of $5,345, it also offers an excellent value for a starter system.

The Dell EqualLogic PS5000 series offers systems that support 15k rpmSAS, 10k SAS or 7,200 rpm SATA drives, and a wide array of sophisticated features, including role-based management, SAN virtualization, thin provisioning, multiple storage tiers, snapshots and replication.

EMC also has two entry-level iSCSI systems, both of which can support both iSCSI and Fibre Channel.

EMC's Celerra NS20 IP storage system is a simple and reasonably priced entry-level system. It features 750 GB SATA drives and supports NAS, iSCSI, and Fibre Channel. EMC does not publish a suggested retail price and does not allow resellers to sell via Internet – this product is only available through an authorized EMC sales team.

The EMC CLARiiON AX4 works with Windows, Linux, VMware and more, and combines simple installation and flexible management capabilities. It is priced starting at $8,599.

HP has a series of iSCSI All-in-One Storage Systems, the HP AiO 400r/t, AiO 600 and AiO1200r, and the MSA1000 and MSA2000 Modular Smart Arrays, which can support both iSCSI and FC.

The HP All-in-One Storage Systems can function as both iSCSI SAN devices and as NAS file servers. They include snapshots, replication and integrated backup services. As well as a simple "application-centric" management interface, that HP claims can manage setup and data migration in less than 10 clicks. The HP StorageWorks 1000/2000 Modular Smart Array family provides either iSCSI or FC connectivity, so users can start with iSCSI and add Fibre Channel if needed. The arrays are designed to be easy to deploy, support both SAS and SATA drives, and include features such as snapshots and replication.

The RELDATA 9240 is an iSCSI appliance that offers a high-performance alternative to Fibre Channel, with support for 10Gb Ethernet as well as the usual 1Gb Ethernet, and also offers FCl connectivity. It offers a sophisticated feature set for managing data, including snapshots, replication, thin provisioning and more.

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