Windows Storage Server unleashed

FalconStor iSCSI Storage Server brings SAN power to your Windows NAS

When it comes to simplifying storage while still offering powerful administrative tools at a reasonable price, not many solutions can compete with FalconStor’s ISS (iSCSI Storage Server). Offering a combination of block and file serving, as well as support for a wide range of hardware configurations, this amazing application has much appeal for cost-conscious customers who still want good performance and flexible management for their storage systems.

Late last year FalconStor released ISS 1.5, a new version that brings ISS’s familiar management interface and friendly storage virtualization and provisioning tools to WSS (Windows Storage Server) 2003. ISS 1.5 also boasts numerous improvements aimed at increasing reliability and performance. These include multipathing, load balancing, and the ability to pair two nodes for active-active fail-over to ensure maximum resilience.

In addition, ISS 1.5 extends the support for critical backup applications and major databases and e-mail systems, providing agents for Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Exchange, Oracle Database, and IBM Lotus Notes.

FalconStor’s partners bundle ISS with a wide variety of hardware solutions that address requirements ranging from entry-level to midtier. For this evaluation, FalconStor sent an unmarked appliance suitable for an entry-level customer. The box had slots for 16 SATA drives, but it was loaded with only eight 250GB Maxtor devices. My testing focused on the software features of ISS, paying little attention to the hardware’s capabilities or price.

Sudden SAN
Installing the appliance in my test environment was a breeze. Using a KVM switch, I accessed the Windows console and changed the IP addresses of the two onboard Gigabit Ethernet NICs to values consistent with my network. Pointing a browser at the array, I opened the Microsoft WSS GUI, to which FalconStor had seamlessly inserted menu entries to manage its features. All the functions necessary to manage my iSCSI SAN -- including configuring the array, provisioning hosts with LUs (logical units), and activating storage services such as mirroring, replicas, and backups on those logical volumes -- were easily available from the “iSCSI” tab of that menu.

A typical first step to configuring a SAN is assigning an LU to a host. First I entered my servers’ names and instructed ISS to autodiscover the servers. My test network had several Windows servers, some with the Microsoft iSCSI initiator installed and others with QLogic HBAs. Pointing these to the ISS portal completed each host’s acknowledgement and captured the initiator string, a critical step for iSCSI connectivity. This automated discovery of your hosts is a great timesaver if you have many to manage.

Next I clicked the “logical units” tab to reveal a list of existing volumes and groups and the controls to create more. The drives in my test appliance were grouped into two separate arrays, so I could choose where to place my new LUs, and I could assign each LU to a host registered in the previous step. ISS allows sharing LUs among hosts or, to prevent mishaps, dedicating a volume exclusively to a host.

Minutes later, I had assigned an LU to each host. After a quick check to make certain Windows could communicate with each volume, my iSCSI SAN was ready to go. If this sounds amazingly easy, it is, but it’s not what sets ISS apart. Other iSCSI solutions (nStor comes to mind) compete in ease of use and affordability, but they fall short in capabilities. ISS offers probably the most complete set of storage services you can find in this class of storage.

Understanding and using those services took the best part of my evaluation time. Having only one ISS appliance to work with, I couldn’t test features that require two nodes, such as clustering or replicas. There were still plenty of other goodies to keep me busy, however.

Snap your apps
An intuitive wizard helped me configure my first snapshot, guiding me through how much space to reserve, enabling automatic expansion of that space, and setting thresholds that trigger increase notifications. After using a script to create some files, I took a snapshot manually. ISS also allows you to set up a schedule, although it’s limited to hourly frequency.

ISS allows you to either mount snapshots directly or copy them. You can also roll back the content of an LU to a given point-in-time snapshot without mounting the snapshot, but it’s obviously a blind operation.

Snapshots are useful for many tasks, such as creating a separate copy for backups, but they don’t provide full protection from a hardware failure. ISS offers mirrors for that; with a mirror you can automatically maintain a redundant copy of your LU on separate hardware -- in my case, a second RAID array -- and survive a hardware failure with no data loss and with minimum disruption.

For applications that require keeping several files in sync, ISS offers handy group options for maintaining snapshots. You may be tempted to use groups for database and e-mail files, but as previously mentioned, FalconStor offers specialized agents for those applications. These agents automate the interactions between the application and ISS, ensuring that the snapshot is a consistent picture of the data and reducing the possibility of catastrophic human error. They should be your first choice.

After installing SQL Server 2000 on one of my servers, I installed the proper agent software from FalconStor. The agent install is nothing major, but it requires a separate product key.

An application snapshot agent works behind the scenes. ISS silently invokes the agent every time a snapshot is taken on the LU containing your database, ensuring that the referential integrity of your database or e-mail store is preserved. Application snapshot agents bring you additional peace of mind, but depending on the number of agents needed, they may also add significant cost to your setup.

Whether or not you make use of application agents, FalconStor’s ISS opens up a new world of flexibility and reliability to your application and file storage. Originally available for Linux servers, it’s now also an easy, affordable, and powerful companion to a Windows NAS.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (20.0%)
Interoperability (10.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Reliability (20.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Management (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
FalconStor iSCSI Storage Server 1.5 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.6