iSCSI vs. Fibre Channel - Not a Winner-Take-All Battle

These days everyone seems to want to talk about iSCSI as an up-and-coming challenger to the dominance of Fibre Channel SANs. In my view that's a myoptic view of the issue. This isn't an epic winner-take-all battle.

The availability of iSCSI SAN solutions with robust functionality and scalable performance certainly changes the landscape, but perhaps not how, or as much as everyone would like to think. In the "old" days (a relatively small amount of time in our industry), Fibre Channel SANs were the only alternative for storage. However, the cost and complexity of the solution imposed natural limitations in terms of the "affordability" of these technologies. It found its natural place in the ecosystem of business solutions.

iSCSI SANs crawled from the technical primordial ooze somewhere along the line to join the food chain, and were immediately labeled as a low-end storage alternative not suitable for anything but limited use. Granted, in those early days iSCSI did have a lot to prove - and needed to "evolve" more to deliver all the functionality required to be taken seriously - and to prove itself worthy in terms of performance and scalability. Fast forward to today where iSCSI SANs have crawled a long way up the evolutionary ladder in a short period of time and are now encroaching on the previously unchallenged domain of Fibre Channel. Everyone wants to talk about the battle that surely will result.

Does anyone else think this sounds like an episode of Animal Planet?

The fact is that both iSCSI and Fibre Channel have both been evolving. The Fibre Channel industry has done a lot to address the complexity issue - and naturally prices have come down over time. While iSCSI was crawling up the food chain - Fibre Channel has been busy crawling down it as it offers its value proposition to new segments of the market. So we have two "species" moving towards each other and picking up speed. Now that's an episode of Animal Planet everyone wants to watch!

The animal kingdom/evolution analogy isn't a bad one to look towards for guidance in this situation. Two similar species, each with strengths and weaknesses, competing in a common environment. What's the result?

Well, in nature, species compete based on their strengths and a natural balance is struck. In the case of iSCSI vs. Fibre Channel, we already know that iSCSI will dominate the lower-end of the solution scale (price, low complexity, common technologies, etc) and Fibre Channel will have the upper-hand in the high-end storage solutions market where it's complexity and cost will be justified. But what about the middle ground?

That's where things get interesting. In this instance, we're going to have a rather large middle-ground where both species will compete within the ecosystem - in many cases head-to-head. Call it the mid-market or whatever you'd like. It's an area where the competition will be intense because the customer will have two viable technology alternatives for the same business requirements. It will be a changing landscape - with the fortunes of the two competing "species" changing as each continues to evolve - iSCSI fighting its way further up the food chain, and Fibre Channel fighting to move down the chain.

The good news - well - the customer wins. Any time the customer has multiple technology alternatives to solve the same business problems the customer comes out ahead. We vendors will continue to work hard to improve our 'species' to compete better for the available food supply and the customer will sit back and reap the benefits. Let's face it, the customer is the top of our food chain - and nothing is going to change that law of nature.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.