Stopping iSCSI overwhelming servers with TCP/IP processing depends upon iSCSI host adapters - specialised network interface cards - doing the work in TCP/IP offload engines (TOEs). Existing adapter suppliers such as Emulex and Adaptec have to add TOEs to their cards existing roster of functions. The more integration there is on such cards the lower the costs.

"One of the criticisms of iSCSI is that it is just as expensive as Fibre Channel solutions, once a TOE-based NIC is added to the equation," said Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst of Taneja Group.

Leading HBA vendors are working with chip suppliers to get integrated iSCSI HBAs to the market, sometimes termed TNICs - TOE network interface cards. They are also concerned to encourage interoperability between iSCSI devices and vendors, for the best performance and security. Different vendors have differing emphases with their products.

Emulex has some 70 percent of the Fibre Channel HBA market. Notwithstanding this it is driving hard, via an alliance with Intel, to build its offerings into iSCSI. By using Intel's XScale technology, based on ARM processors and 90 nanometre fabrication facilities, it intends to uprate its cards' technology faster than anyone else. It is foreseeing the time when the add-in HBA card becomes a chip solution on a server motherboard, in a similar way to Intel's current shipment of ROMB - RAID on the motherboard.

Network Appliance is also working with Intel on iSCSI products. It is using Intel's PRO/1000 T IP Storage Adapter for its host attach kits.

Adaptec is working with IP storage switch supplier Cisco, alongside HP, NEC and others, to develop interoperability, a set of tools and developers, fashionably termed an ecosystem, using Adaptec iSCSI ASICs and cards in their IP storage products. Adaptec's complete line of iSCSI ASICs and host bus adapters fully support the IETF iSCSI standard.

QLogic provides SANblade iSCSI HBAs incorporating security offload engines (SOEs). The IETF iSCSI standard includes the provision of IPsec security, reflecting concern that virus-susceptible TCP/IP networks could allow damaging attacks on storage devices. The company is providing products to OEMs at chip and card level.

Alacritech iSCSI cards have been used with Microsoft Windows Server 2003 to provide record breaking file server performance. The O/S includes a native iSCSI driver with support for IPsec encryption. TCP/IP management remains on the server whilst data movement is done on the Alacritech card with multiple cards being used for load balancing. Alacritech says this approach provides better scalability.

iReady, steady, go?
Putting TCP/IP stack processing into silicon will benefit all TCP/IP network links and not just iSCSI. But you need to merge the iSCSI and Ethernet work into a single chip. This thinking has propelled iReady towards making highly integrated iSCSI HBAs and also iSCSI controllers for the other end of the iSCSI link. The integration includes Gigabit Ethernet MAC and PHY connectivity in an ethernetMAX controller. This will enable people to merge gigabit Ethernet networks and iSCSI with little extra expense. The iReady HBA product family includes three product offerings: the IR-1011LC iSCSI Storage Adapter, the IR-1011C Secure Storage Adapter, and the IR-1011F Secure Storage Adapter for optical networks.

Taneja praises iReady; "Based on what iReady is positioned to offer, there is no longer an argument against iSCSI performance and cost barriers. iReady is offering a level of integration and unparalleled pricing that will set a new industry standard for iSCSI."

iReady is also offering the iReady Secure Storage Adapter for sophisticated Gigabit Ethernet networks that need to support IPsec.

Ryo Koyama, iReady co-founder and CEO, believes the economics of Ethernet are vital to the widespread acceptance of TOEs and iSCSI, and says iReady keeps costs down because its chip is simpler by design. "The price points drop, and all of a sudden the purchasing decision has shifted (down) to the IT manager's desk," Koyama said.

The iReady HBAs will be generally available in Q3 2003 at volume OEM pricing of $199 for the IR-1011LC iSCSI Storage Adapter and, $299 for the copper IR-1011C Secure Storage Adapter.

Lift off or not?
The iSCSI market is not yet taking off, partly because Ethernet economics do not yet apply to it. TNICs, for example, are too expensive. The greater the integration the lower the cost. IReady's combination of Gigabit Ethernet controller functionality and iSCSI could be significant. Undoubtedly the Emulex/Intel tie up driving TNICs towards the motherboard will also help remove TNIC expense as an obstacle to iSCSI adoption.