Fibre Channel vs. iSCSI: The war continues
As FCoE has come onto the scene, the FC vs. iSCSI fire has been reignited. A balanced perspective will save you time and money
By Matt Prigge | InfoWorld | Published: 15:57, 14 July 2010
The nitty-gritty on iSCSI
iSCSI is a storage networking protocol built on top of the TCP/IP networking protocol. Ratified as a standard in 2004, iSCSI's greatest claim to fame is that it runs over the same network equipment that run the rest of the enterprise network. It does not specifically require any extra hardware, which makes it comparatively inexpensive to implement.
From a performance perspective, iSCSI lags behind FC/FCP. But when iSCSI is implemented properly, the difference boils down to a few milliseconds of additional latency due to the overhead required to encapsulate SCSI commands within the general-purpose TCP/IP networking protocol. This can make a huge difference for extremely high transactional I/O loads and is the source of most claims that iSCSI is unfit for use in the enterprise. Such workloads are rare outside of the Fortune 500, however, so in most cases the performance delta is much narrower.
iSCSI also places a larger load on the CPU of the server. Though hardware iSCSI HBAs do exist, most iSCSI implementations use a software initiator - essentially loading the server's processor with the task of creating, sending and interpreting storage commands. This also has been used as an effective argument against iSCSI. However, given the fact that servers today often ship with significantly more CPU resources than most applications can hope to use, the cases where this makes any kind of substantive difference are few and far between.
iSCSI can hold its own with FC in terms of throughput through the use of multiple 1Gbps Ethernet or 10Gbps Ethernet links. It also benefits from being TCP/IP in that it can be used over great distances through existing WAN links. This usage scenario is usually limited to SAN-to-SAN replication, but is significantly easier and less expensive to implement than FC-only alternatives.
Aside from savings through reduced infrastructural costs, many enterprises find iSCSI much easier to deploy. Much of the skill set required to implement iSCSI overlaps with that of general network operation. This makes iSCSI extremely attractive to smaller enterprises with limited IT staffing and largely explains its popularity in that segment.
This ease of deployment is a double-edged sword. Because iSCSI is easy to implement, it is also easy to implement incorrectly. Failure to implement using dedicated network interfaces, to ensure support for switching features such as flow control and jumbo framing, and to implement multipath I/O are common mistakes which can result in lackluster performance. Stories abound on Internet forums of unsuccessful iSCSI deployments that could have been avoided because of these factors.
Fiber Channel over IP
FCoIP (Fiber Channel over Internet Protocol) is a niche protocol that was ratified in 2004. It is a standard for encapsulating FCP frames within TCP/IP packets so that they can be shipped over a TCP/IP network. It is almost exclusively used for bridging FC fabrics at multiple sites to enable SAN-to-SAN replication and backup over long distances.
Due to the inefficiency of fragmenting large FC frames into multiple TCP/IP packets (WAN circuits typically don't support packets over 1,500 bytes), it is not built to be low latency. Instead, it is built to allow geographically separated Fibre Channel fabrics to be linked when dark fiber isn't available to do so with native FCP. FCIP is almost always found in FC distance gateways - essentially FC/FCP-to-FCIP bridges - and is rarely if ever used natively by storage devices as a server to storage access method.