I just finished an iSCSI Training Course last week at the Solution Technology Training Facility, and I must say that I had a great time.
First, I want to thank the students that joined me, for their participation and enthusiasm. When I do SAN protocol training, I always encourage questions at any time, and there were quite a few right from the start, all the way through the last day.
As with many of the iSCSI classes that I do, we start off with where iSCSI comes from (evolution of SCSI) , along with the applications and environments where iSCSI makes sense as a SAN solution.
Then we start to look at how iSCSI is actually “done” – that is, how SCSI Phases, Commands, Data, Messages, and Status are encapsulated into iSCSI Protocol Data Units (PDUs) and are sent back and forth over a TCP connection, to get some kind of work done (storing and retrieving data). We even go into the details of all the iSCSI PDUs. That takes up most of the first day, but that is when the fun begins, at least for me.
The “fun” is when we start to look at iSCSI protocol using a protocol analyzer. In my classes, we use Wireshark, and start by looking at some captured traces that I supply. We do this so that we can get to know the analyzer and the iSCSI protocol in a controlled way. We even add color to our traces so we can easily recognize iSCSI activity. Once that is done, it is time to start building our own iSCSI SAN and capturing ‘live’ traces of what is going on. This is the basics of what makes up our own iSCSI Lab, which is unique every time we do them.
The iSCSI Lab is made up of one or more iSCSI Initiators, one or more iSCSI Targets, and of course the infrastructure (network) to connect all of the components together. These components can be hardware, software, or a mix of the two.
Last week, we did a “mostly software” lab, but all of that has to run on computers (hardware). And like many other labs I have done, there were issues with some of the hardware. The good news is, we had a chance to do a little debugging and had other hardware that we could use. As a result, I believe one of the key objectives of building an iSCSI SAN was achieved – that is how to use the information and tools available to debug any issues that may come up.
After a relatively short time, we had the iSCSI Initiator software installed, and the iSCSI Target software installed on working computers. Then we did a “controlled exercise” to capture analyzer traces as the students attempted to connect and log into the targets. Again, we were challenged by having basic connectivity (we could ping from each machine), but there were issues with doing the TCP connection and iSCSI Login sequences. Once again, we used the analyzer traces that we captured to debug the issue and get successful iSCSI Login PDUs flowing between the initiators and targets.
There were a few other challenges, such as Disk Administration and configuration duties, but once that was done we had a working iSCSI SAN where data was moving back and forth across the network. After all of this “work” was done, we had a great time capturing traces and looking at the differences between different iSCSI Initiator implementations in detail. I must say that it was interesting to see how different people “do the SCSI thing” in the world of storage.
There were other challenges involving weather, wind, and trees, but that will have to covered in a future post.
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I was looking at some online SAN training just yesterday, which was from a major vendor in the market, and I gotta tell you – I was not impressed. I won’t mention the vendor by name, but if I was with this particular company, I would not be happy with the quality of the product that was being produced and released to the public.
Now let me give you the conditions of this training material that I looked at. First, it was a no-cost web-based presentation. I was not about to pay for something without knowing the quality of the content, so I wanted to try out some of their freely available material first. I would assume that any training organization would want to offer their best material at all times, but perhaps this particular company does not share that idea when it comes to their no-cost material.
The actual “content” was very technical, which all SAN training stuff seems to be, so the hardest part is usually getting the audience “involved” in the subject matter. The course is a 3 hour “narrated” system (voice over) of what looked like a few PowerPoint slide sets.
The Good Points:
- The presentation did work in my browser (Firefox). Some systems I have seen require you to load a proprietary piece of software just to look at the course, but this one played just fine without any of that.
- Navigation controls available. This system has arrows and buttons that you can click that allow you to jump around through the material, both forward and back, so that you could skip ahead or review something without having to play the whole presentation again.
- There was animation in some of the slides. Animation is good as it helps to illustrate certain concepts, such as signal flow or action-reaction concepts, much better than straight text.
- Review questions were present. These are good so that the student will know if they got the key concepts that were presented.
The Bad Points:
The biggest issue I have with this particular course overall is that it was BORING! I know teaching technical topics is a challenge (from my own experience), but watching and listening to this was really painful. Here’s why.
- Poor “acting” (voice over). I am very picky about how I present my classes, and I could tell that whoever did the voice over for this material was either just reading a script, or was “just doing a job” to get this material out. There was almost no “enthusiasm” at all. I could also tell that this person had limited (if any) knowledge of the actual subject matter. In one segment, the person actually was pronouncing the words wrong! The particular subject being presented is an area where you really need to be an expert, or at least someone that has worked with the systems that are being covered.
- Poor sound quality (production issue). One of the first things I learned when trying to make video, or web-based courses, is that the difference between a good or bad video is the sound. Think of a TV show or movie where the sound was either not clear, or the levels jumped around from high to low and back again. And what about those commercials that seem to blast out at you between scenes when watching TV?
I am very picky about the quality of training I provide. Even in a web or video-based environment, you have to make this material as good as you can to keep the student interested, or at least awake, through the process. I would hope that someone would review the overall product before it was released.
Even if this material is free, it needs to represent the organization at its best. After-all, this “give-away” course should be looked at as a sales tool, and if I was the customer, I don’t think I would be buying any more training based on this offering.
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Solution Technology is the main place I have worked for over the past 15+ years. It has been a great experience and I feel that I have met and worked with the “best of the best” in the SAN training industry, so I thought I should let you know a little about them.
They are actually a relatively small group of dedicated folks that have the talent to pass on technical information in a way that is easy to understand, at least if you have worked in the computer or storage industry at all. They pride themselves on developing technical documents (books & reference materials) and presenting very detailed information in a way that can be understood.
One of the best parts of most of the classes, at least in my opinion, are the protocol analyzer traces that show the actual operation of the interface. This does get into the nuts & bolts of how a system works, but for a person that needs this kind of detail, it is really great.
A few of the SAN courses (such as the iSCSI course) include hands-on lab exercises, where you can build, configure, and analyze how the system works. This involves installing either hardware or software (or both) components and then performing the actual steps to make it work. The best part of these classes, at least for me, is when something does not work and you have to use the tools you have available to figure out what is happening and make it function properly. Of course this means that you would have been given enough information about how the system is supposed to work, and how to use the tools, and these exercises help reinforce the concepts covered during the course by actually doing all these things yourself.
There is also a dedicated office staff at Solution Technology. They do their job so well that most of the time you are not even aware of them. This includes everything from scheduling the classes, both on-site and at the customer site, handling and shipping of materials (books and such), and handling “paperwork” (the backbone of most businesses), etc.
This may all sound relatively simple, but once you have seen how things can be “overlooked” or forgotten, as I have seen when other companies are trying to do these things, then you really start to appreciate the skills and talents of all involved there.
I am proud to have worked with everyone here.