What does protocol really mean in your data center?

Does protocol matter when you are building out your storage? Is it a hardware choice? Maybe a software choice?


Manufacturers will tell you that unified storage arrays are the shangri-la for enterprise storage, yet few environments need every protocol. Virtualization, databases, cloud and file all have different needs for the best user experience.

Despite this, I heard from the majority of the senior IT staff for the first 5-10 years of my IT career that, “fibre channel is the most secure, best performance protocol and should be used for all enterprise-class products.” Until I really started looking at different protocols, I would have agreed. Fibre channel keeps all of your traffic isolated with very little work, primarily because you need a special switch and specific cabling and host bus adapters.

But the part of the statement that bothered me was the “all.”

Anytime you are so definitive, the odds are against you. We have seen companies created to go after a file-based protocol stack with network file system (NFS) and server message block (SMB) and we have seen block based companies based on Internet small computer systems interface (iSCSI): What do these have in common? Ethernet connectivity…

Deploying ethernet versus fibre channel or infiniband in your data center may seem like a risky proposition, but so is relying on older technology or limited staff knowledge. To add to that, when was the last time you saw a network switch that was under-utilized? If you want a secure fabric that isn’t connected to other networks, then why not buy another switch? Before you even need to buy a switch, why not just use  virtual LANs (VLANs)?

An old school IT guy might say: “You can’t use VLANs; they aren’t secure. Who knows what could jump across subnets.”

Another misnomer, that same IT guy will ask you if you zoned off the fibre channel switch to allow access to traffic -- sounds a lot like iSCSI to me with custom gear.

I am not saying FC doesn’t have its place in the data center, but for everything? No way! Below are just a few examples of solutions that most companies have and what I would suggest for protocols. 


Whether it is for servers or desktops, I would suggest NFS all the way. Why NFS? It’s simple, the management is easy, hypervisors can see NFS quickly and easily, and it is available from almost every vendor. You will get some people who say to use iSCSI, but I think the logical unit number (LUN) management when you get to tens, hundreds and thousands of hosts becomes cumbersome and painful.


This one is one of the few where block environments frequently come up. Many of the database engines require block devices so go with iSCSI -- it utilizes your existing hardware and will grow with you. 

Web Apps

This one depends on how advanced you are looking to go. For traditional web, NFS is ideal. For next-gen apps, take a look at object storage. Right now, that means either Swift or S3, with Amazon leading the charge with S3. 

File Storage

This one also gives you two answers, but they are pretty cut and dry. Are you primarily a Windows environment? Then go with SMB. Are you a Linux shop? NFS it is. 

Just keep in mind that when you look at storage, a unified solution may be the best way to get what you need. These unified solutions come in a lot of flavors, but from where I stand, something unified and software-defined gives you additional flexibility for protocols and hardware that traditional solutions don’t offer.

Don’t take my word for it exclusively though; look at your staff. Where is your expertise? What hardware do you already own? Then, pick the right protocol at the right time.

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