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A year ago, channel executives described iSCSI as a technology in its infancy—an interesting storage approach but one that wasn’t getting too far with resellers.

But as 2005 draws to a close, iSCSI’s standing has changed dramatically. The fast-growing technology is now considered a viable option for storage networking as opposed to a theoretical possibility.

Advanced Technical Solutions LLC, based in Scott Depot, W.Va., is among the resellers that have deployed iSCSI SANs (storage-area networks) this year. When Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston, W. Va. inquired about a storage system, ATS weighed the traditional Fibre Channel SAN against iSCSI. The iSCSI option came out on top.

“The costs were pretty exorbitant” on the Fibre Channel side, noted Gary Sims, president and chief executive officer of ATS.

The price gap between Fibre Channel and iSCSI is not just about hardware costs. Indeed, the delta has narrowed somewhat as Fibre Channel gear—switches and host bus adapter cards—have hit lower price points in recent months. But hardware is only part of the picture, Sims said.

“It’s not just the cost, but the ongoing cost to support the product,” he said.

The introduction of a Fibre Channel SAN raises the question of whether a customer has the expertise on hand to manage the environment, Sims said.

On the other hand, the iSCSI approach lets block-level storage traverse ubiquitous IP networks. The upshot: Organizations can run the storage network using their existing infrastructure and administrators. They can avoid the expense of deploying a new networking protocol, retraining staff and/or hiring Fibre Channel experts.

With iSCSI, customers aren’t “looking for a lot of support after the fact,” Sims explained.

For Thomas Memorial Hospital, ATS recommended iSCSI-based storage arrays from EqualLogic Inc. The hospital deployed EqualLogic’s PS200E arrays, according to EqualLogic. Sims said the hospital initially purchased three arrays, but later added three more.

The EqualLogic SAN supports applications ranging from Microsoft Exchange to SQL Server databases housing medical records, EqualLogic said.

Mark Boggs, the hospital’s IT director, said the IP-based technology provides the ability to “extend the SAN fabric wherever we want.” He noted that some hospital facilities are two or three miles outside the main campus. Overall, the hospital was looking for a storage solution that was “low-cost, easier to manage and reliable,” he noted.

Sims, meanwhile, said the hospital storage project may extend into off-site replication. He said ATS may install an EqualLogic box in its own data center for disaster recovery. EqualLogic’s Auto Replication feature permits volume-level replication between arrays at different sites.

Sims, who acknowledged some initial iSCSI skepticism, said the EqualLogic solution met the hospital’s storage needs, provided scalability, and offered a lower entry point. He added that ATS also has sold iSCSI storage solutions to a physicians group and a law firm.

“I believe this is the way it’s going to go for customers—using existing infrastructure and not buying all new switching gear,” Sims said.

The economics of IP storage will likely move more resellers, and their customers, into the iSCSI camp.