Microsoft's broad agenda to blast branch bottlenecks

Windows Server 2003 R2 promises features that help make communications between central offices and branches zippier. Microsoft has additional plans for better branch communications coming with Vista and Longhorn.

With the recent release to manufacturing of Windows Server 2003 R2, Microsoft has made available some promised compression technologies that should ease communication between central offices and their branch locations.

Windows Server 2003 R2 includes Distributed File System (DFS) replication. Within DFS is an algorithm called Remote Differentiation Compression. This algorithm lets a user send only changes to a file through the network -- not the entire file.

Branch office products are a good place to win over the hearts and minds of IT managers. These locations often have limited or no IT staff; they are also typically last in line when servers and software are replaced. IT managers welcome the new technology.

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"Give us compression techniques that can give more oomph in any given pipe and resiliency so end users at remote desktops get a better experience," said Scott Saunders, director of MIS at Paxson Communications Corp., in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"We are happy to receive anything that helps to slim down Active Directory communications or new remote management capability," Saunders said.

Paxson has a "warm" offsite recovery location in Clearwater, Fla. When the company upgrades its servers, the older machines are sent to the recovery site to be warm standbys. "So anything [Microsoft] can do to enhance data replication in the WAN will benefit us and keep us from having to buy an expensive third-party product."

Microsoft promises more to come. In the past few years, the company has created a team that looks at branch offices as an entity. In those branch locations, there are few dedicated servers to perform discrete functions; these servers might handle multiple functions.

According to Radhesh Balakrishnan, a group product manager in the Windows Server Division at Microsoft, Microsoft had to compile its own research when it began its investigation on branches because research companies didn't have separate statistics. The company found roughly 1.5 million branch offices in the United States, and most focused on four vertical markets -- retail, finance, healthcare and hospitality.

Microsoft also found that data in branches tends to be minimally protected, at best. "Maybe they run tapes at the end of the day, but it's not necessarily dependable backup," Balakrishnan said. "They usually have older versions of Windows."

We are happy to receive anything that helps to slim down Active Directory communications or new remote management capability.
Scott Saunders, Paxson Communications Corp.,

Microsoft's branch office team spans product development and marketing. When it was created, the team's goal was to define technologies and create products over three to five years that would work well in branches as well as a central office and to work with partners to develop products.

One example of technology optimized for branches is a server appliance from Brocade Communications Systems Inc., which consists of Microsoft's Storage Server R2 working with Tacit Networks Inc.'s wide area file services (WAFS). Fujitsu Siemens Computers also sells a branch office appliance based on Storage Server and WAFS.

There is another tier of branch office appliance coming from OEMs in early January, which will be built on Windows Server 2003. The difference between Storage Server and Windows Server products is a customer can run a line-of-business application on the latter platform, Balakrishnan said. This should appeal to some branch offices, such as retail operations, that have more computing needs than to simply store documents, he said.

New vistas in Vista for bandwidth value

Aside from products, technologies that create bandwidth efficiencies are important. There are some improvements coming in all versions of Windows Vista, which ships later next year. Client-side caching capability is one in particular; improvements to the networking stack, which optimizes TCP for the WAN, is another.

Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server Service Pack 2 will offer BITS (Background Intelligent Transfer Service) caching, which lets an administrator in the home office patch multiple desktops in the field by sending the patch only once over the network to the local branch. A local server then distributes the patch.

Later, when Longhorn Server ships in 2007, customers will see read-only Domain Controller, a lightweight authentication technology, that provides LAN-like performance across WAN services.

Microsoft is also looking to improve compression on the SMB [Server Message Block] protocol, for client-to-server messaging. So, in the Longhorn timeframe, engineers will look to make SMB 2.0 less chatty than the current version.

It may seem that today everyone has some form of broadband connection and, indeed, most branch offices in the U.S. and in many western European nations have adequate bandwidth resources. But some large offices in other locations, like China and India, still connect using dial-up.

Lack of bandwidth is not the only concern, said Adam Ungar, a senior product manager at Microsoft. There are also latency issues and other complexities. "You can't always buy more bandwidth to fix the problem," he said.

There is no one simple answer to address all the branch office needs. Everything depends on the vertical market and size of the branch, Balakrishnan said. To that end, Microsoft is trying to make their existing technologies branch friendly and looking to develop its next generation of products to be branch ready.

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