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FC SAN vs iSCSI SAN: What’s the Difference?

Storage area networks (SANs) are a permanent fixture in corporate data centers used to host high-performance block-level structured workloads such as databases, applications, etc. If you’re familiar with SAN systems, then you’ve heard of Fibre Channel (FC) and iSCSI SAN protocols. Both SAN storage protocols have their pros and cons, making it worthwhile to take a minute and learn the differences between the two; especially if you’re looking to set up a new SAN environment, or replace/expand an existing one.

In this blog we compare FC SAN vs iSCSI SAN to help you make an informed decision for your SAN storage systems.

What is FC SAN?

Fibre Channel SAN, or FC SAN, is a block-level storage protocol that uses Fibre Channel technology to connect storage devices to servers. Fibre Channel is a high-speed data transfer protocol used for mission-critical zero-tier applications and databases such as online transactional processing (OTLP), online ticketing, banking applications, data analytics, genome research, video analytics, media and production environments, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), etc.

The typical throughput speeds of a Fibre Channel SAN are 8 Gbps, 16 Gbps, and 32 Gbps and can also go up to 128Gbps by combining four 32 Gb lanes. The Fibre Channel SAN protocol was originally developed as a more reliable, scalable, and low latency alternative to iSCSI SANs.

What are the Benefits of FC SAN?

Low Latency: Fibre Channel SANs support comparatively faster IOPs and throughput than iSCSI SANs because FC Sans are purpose-built for lower latency and lower overhead (require host bus adapter – HBA).

Dedicated Network: Fibre Channel SANs operate on a dedicated network separate from the regular LAN, which helps prevent congestion and interference from other network traffic. This isolation enhances the overall performance and reliability of the storage infrastructure.

Best Suited for Mission-Critical Applications: As opposed to iSCSI SANs that use the Ethernet network, Fibre Channel SANs are isolated from non-storage traffic, making them ideal for mission-critical workloads.

Drawbacks of FC SAN:

Specialized Adapters and Separate Network: To use an FC SAN, businesses have to get specialized FC SAN adapters and switches and configure two networks: storage network FC and an ethernet network for other communications.  

Steep Learning Curve: FC SANs has a higher learning curve than iSCSI SANs. It’s more manually intensive and difficult to manage – requiring more training, and a greater knowledge-base to effectively manage the FC SAN.

Changes are disruptive: In most cases, FC SAN changes and updates are disruptive. If any changes need to be made, they have to be scheduled beforehand.

Distance Limitations: Fibre Channel has historically been limited in terms of the distance over which it can effectively operate. Extending Fibre Channel over long distances may require specialized equipment, adding to the overall cost. iSCSI, using standard IP networks, can leverage existing long-distance capabilities of Ethernet.

Scalability: While Fibre Channel is scalable, expanding a Fibre Channel SAN may involve more planning and investment in specialized hardware. iSCSI, being based on standard Ethernet networks, can often be more easily scaled by adding standard networking equipment.

Expensive: As FC SAN requires specialized hardware and the organization still needs to set up an ethernet network for non-storage communications, the initial cost (CapEx) is higher than iSCSI SANs. Additionally, FC SAN management is difficult. It takes more time and the on-going costs (OpEx) are relatively higher as well.

What is iSCSI SAN?

Internet Small Computer System Interface SAN, or iSCSI SAN, is a SAN storage protocol that uses Ethernet network to connect storage devices to servers. iSCSI SANs use the standard TCP/IP network to transfer SCSI packets from source to target block storage.

An iSCSI SAN supports 1Gbps, 10Gbps, 40Gbps, and 100 Gbps. Unlike FC SAN, iSCSI networks have a higher latency because the TCP/IP network isn’t dedicated only to storage traffic.

What are the benefits of iSCSI SAN?

Easy to implement and manage: iSCSI SANs use the standard TCP/IP and Ethernet networking which makes it easier to set up and manage compared to FC SANs. Furthermore, the built-in automation in iSCSI SANs adds to the simplicity of network management.

Scalability with Standard Networking Equipment: When comparing Fibre Channel vs iSCSI, iSCSI SANs can be easily scaled by adding standard Ethernet switches and routers. This scalability simplifies the process of expanding storage infrastructure as business needs grow without requiring specialized or proprietary hardware.

Flexibility in Network Integration: iSCSI can coexist with other network traffic on the same Ethernet infrastructure. This flexibility allows organizations to use the same network for both storage and regular data traffic, streamlining infrastructure management and reducing the need for a dedicated storage network.

Long-Distance Connectivity: iSCSI can leverage existing IP networking technologies, allowing for long-distance connectivity over wide-area networks (WANs). This is advantageous for organizations with geographically dispersed locations or remote offices.

Wide Industry Adoption: iSCSI has gained widespread industry adoption and support, leading to a diverse ecosystem of compatible hardware and software solutions. This broad support contributes to the ease of integration and interoperability.

Less Expensive than FC SAN: iSCSI SANs cost less upfront (CapEx) and are less expensive to maintain (OpEx) since they use standard Ethernet network routers, adapters, and switches.

Drawbacks of iSCSI SAN:

Higher Latency than FC SANs: As iSCSI SANs share the Ethernet network with other workloads in a mixed network, it’s more prone to latency than Fibre Channel which is a dedicated network for block-storage only. While iSCSI SAN does support throughput speeds up to 100Gbps, the fact that the mixed network is prone to latency, makes it comparatively less suitable for mission-critical zero-tier workloads.

Now that we’ve covered the basics of FC SANs and iSCSI SANs, let’s compare the two side-by-side.

FC SAN vs iSCSI SAN – Which SAN is better?

Performance: When it comes to the throughput speed of FC SAN vs iSCSI SAN, iSCSI SAN can support up to 100Gbps. However, iSCSI SAN runs on the standard Ethernet and TCP/IP network which is shared with communication and other data channels. This mixed network makes iSCSI SANs vulnerable to latency.

On the other hand, Fibre Channel can go up to 128Gbps and is a dedicated network for block-level storage. This makes FC SANs less prone to latency and much more reliable for mission-critical workloads.

Management: Fibre Channel SAN is more difficult to manage than iSCSI SAN. That’s because Fibre Channel requires a dedicated network and specialized adapters, and switches. If you choose to use FC SANs, then you have to manage two networks: one for the FC SAN block storage and the second for communication and data management.

Alternatively, since iSCSI SAN uses the standard Ethernet network, it’s much easier to manage.

Cost: Since Fibre Channel SAN requires specialized hardware, and is more complex than iSCSI SAN, it has higher CapEx and OpEx. It’s important to note that while iSCSI SAN are more cost-effective, the performance capabilities of the Fibre Channel SAN make the cost worth it.

Comparison between FC SAN vs iSCSI SAN

FC SAN vs iSCSI SAN Comparison

FC SAN vs iSCSI SAN: How to Choose the Right SAN for your Business?

Which SAN is better for your business? The answer: it depends.

FC SAN is great for environments that have the budget and expertise to set up and manage a dedicated fibre channel network. It gives the business reliable performance for their mission-critical workloads and is therefore a great asset.

On the other hand, iSCSI SAN runs on Ethernet network. This makes them great for businesses looking to run high performance workloads without having to purchase dedicated network hardware.

The right SAN for your business depends on your:

  • Performance requirements
  • Expertise to manage SAN systems (specifically FC SAN)
  • Available resources and budget

Custom-Build Your Fibre Channel and/or iSCSI SAN with StoneFly

StoneFly pioneered the creation, development, and deployment of the iSCSI storage protocol and products. Beginning with its registration of the www.iscsi.com Internet domain name in March 1996, StoneFly shipped its first iSCSI storage appliance in 2002, and has expanded the SAN product line to include Fibre Channel SAN available as single-node integrated SAN (ISC™) and high availability modular and disaggregated SAN (Voyager™).

StoneFly iSCSI and FC SAN are available as 8, 12, 16, 24, 36-bay appliances. The 4U rackmounts can support up to 1.5PBs of scalable raw storage capacity per chassis. The block storage capacity can be further increased by adding Expandable Bunch of Drives (EBODs). Depending on the SAN appliance series and model, each rackmount can support up to 256 drives using EBODs or more with FC SAN switches.

StoneFly SAN appliances come preconfigured with our patented 8th generation award winning software-defined storage solution: StoneFusion™.

StoneFusion enables StoneFly SAN appliances to offer:

Optional Integrated Ransomware Protection Suite – StoneFly SAN storage solutions support the following optional integrated automated ransomware protection features:

  • Automated Always-On Air® Gapped Backups
  • Immutable Storage using S3 Object Lockdown
  • Immutable File Lockdown Technology
  • Delta-Based SnapLock Immutable and Air-Gapped
  • Anti-Ransomware with Automated Detection and Removal of Dormant Ransomware

High availability with clustering and automated failover/failback: No single point of failure, set up high availability (HA) automated failover/failback clusters that ensure your critical operations continue seamlessly. StoneFly SAN combines hardware RAID controller and erasure coding to prevent failure within the node and/or across the cluster to avoid data loss and reduce downtime to near-zero.

Real-time performance reporting: Effectively control and manage your infrastructure with real-time graphical performance reporting of CPU, network, storage capacity, throughput, and more.

Conclusion

FC SAN offer low latency and lossless networking for mission-critical workloads but require specialized hardware and are typically expensive. iSCSI SAN use the standard ethernet and TCP/IP network and are easy to set up and manage but are prone to latency because of the mixed network.

FC SAN or iSCSI SAN? Which one is better for your business? Depends on your performance requirements, expertise, and available resources.

Need help finding the right SAN storage for your business? Talk to our experts today to discuss your block storage projects.

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