Setting up iSCSI on a desktop PC

I’ve been doing a lot of poking around inside iSCSI lately, mostly due to a need to set up shared storage facilities for my server-based virtual machine Cloud. It recently crossed my mind that it might be a good idea to try out iSCSI from the desktop as well. After all, everything you can do from a server should be possible from a desktop, too.

Setting up iSCSI on a desktop PC

Consider the advantages of using an iSCSI disk solution for a desktop machine. First, it makes a remote drive – which might be down a long length of Ethernet cable, or perhaps even on the other side of the world via a wide area network – appear as if it’s fitted in your local machine.

This can be fantastically useful, and not only from the obvious point of view that the storage doesn’t have to fit inside the computer. iSCSI allows you to put your storage in the best place for the disks, which are noisy and put out a lot of heat; trying to make a quiet PC with lots of internal disks is always going to be an exercise in futility. Far better to put those disks in another location, such as the garage, and keep the noise and heat out of the house.

If you’re going to shovel lots of disk activity over Ethernet, your Ethernet fabric needs to be in decent condition, and Gigabit Ethernet is the way to go

Clearly, if you’re going to shovel lots of disk activity over Ethernet, your Ethernet fabric needs to be in decent condition, and Gigabit Ethernet is the way to go (but then I’d say that about any file share on a server, too). So why go for an iSCSI solution rather than a simple Windows file share? Well, the fact that the disk appears to be local is the clue: it’s your own local storage, so everyone else is locked out of it unless you specifically enable sharing through your computer.

So assuming that you want to play with this technology, how do you go about implementing it? I decided to go a bit mad and connect a Windows 7 installation across the network to one of my iSCSI SANs (storage area networks). Actually, I was being even madder than this because the Windows 7 session was running on a virtual machine on my desktop, just to compound the frisson I’d receive if by some miracle it worked.

To get it to work you have to start at the back-end and work forwards, so I web-connected through to the management interface of one of my Iomega StorCenter Pro NAS ix4-200r devices that sit in my rack space along with the VMware and Hyper-V test rigs running on rackmount HP servers. In the administration interface, I went to the Shared Storage tab and told it to set up a new share of type iSCSI. (It supports conventional sharing over SMB/CIFS and Apple File Protocol connections too, but I want raw iSCSI.)

I chose the size of the new disk share that I wanted – 5GB would do for this test – and gave it a name of “5test”. Since I have security enabled on my SAN, I decided to generate a new account and password just for this iSCSI share point.

The Iomega box then hummed away to itself as it created the new 5GB share. Or rather I imagined it was humming, since the box is located several hundred feet away from where I’m sitting, and the contented hum would be drowned out by fan noise anyway. After a short while the iSCSI share of “5test” had been created and security had been applied, at which point I had the equivalent of a physical hard disk simply connectable via Ethernet rather than by SATA, USB or FireWire.

Initiation rites

Once you’ve done this you need to use the drive, so moving over to the Windows 7 desktop I dived deep into the Control Panel to find the iSCSI Initiator; I suggest you type iSCSI into the search box in Control Panel to get a quick lookup. What you need to find is “Set up the iSCSI Initiator”, which lurks in the Administrative Tools subsection. This almost certainly is a region of the Windows OS configuration that you’ve never looked at before, but fortunately, much of its complexity can be ignored.

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