Windows Server 2003 contains a number of features that will make storage administrators very happy by doing everything from reducing help desk calls for file restoration to letting administrators grow disk volumes from the command line.
Server 2003 provides a number of enhancements to the file system, including Virtual Disk Service (VDS), which includes a built-in API with advanced management tools; Volume Shadow Copy Service, for creating point-in-time copies of data on a volume; and enhancements to the Distributed File System (DFS) that allow a single server to host multiple DFS roots.
The Virtual Disk Service creates a new virtualization layer that sits between the basic and dynamic disk providers and the hardware providers, and offers ability to manage storage resources through a new API. Among other things, this allows basic disks to have some of the same functionality previously only available to dynamic disks, such as the ability to grow the disk online.
What is likely to be more immediately visible to storage administrators is the new commands that will let them do jobs such as grow disks, set RAID striping and more effectively tune the file system from within the operating system.
Of course the benefits of the VDS API will be available to storage vendors as well, and Microsoft expects that most of them will write VDS 'providers' that will connect them to the VDS. Likewise, storage management software vendors will hook into the VDS to more effectively manage a wider range of hardware. In the long run, this is likely to be the biggest benefit of VDS, but it will take more time.
Volume Shadow Copy Service offers a way to make copies of data on a volume at a given point in time. It also automatically maintains a copy of the volume's data until a later copy replaces it. Since backups can be taken from the shadow copies, VSS largely eliminates the problem of files not copied because they are in use while the backup is being made.
Even more attractive to storage managers, VSS provides a way for users to fix their own screw-ups if they accidentally delete the file. Using VSS the user can restore the file without having to call the help desk.
The improvements in the Distributed File System will also make storage administrators' lives easier. Windows 2000 supported only one DFS root (the first destination when trying to access a file) per server. If you had X roots, you needed X servers. Also under Windows 2000, if the DFS wasn't able to find the file on the site with the DFS root, it would pick a remote site containing a copy of the file at random. This could mean your file system was going to Japan to get a file when there was a copy available in the next building.
Under Server 2003, a server can host multiple DFS roots, which makes it a lot easier to organize your DFS file system effectively without adding additional hardware. In addition, the DFS uses costing information in the Active Directory and chooses the cheapest remote DFS server with a copy of the file.
Another important addition to Server 2003 is Automated System Recovery (ASR). While it's not as good as that sounds, Microsoft's ASR will help significantly in bringing back a non-bootable machine to the point where you can recover the data off it. It will also configure new storage to the specifications of the storage on the non-bootable device and restore all the settings, applications and the operating system.
All told, Microsoft Server 2003 is definitely worth a look for Windows shops that need to improve their storage administration.
Rick Cook has been writing about mass storage since the days when the term meant an 80K floppy disk. The computers he learned on used ferrite cores and magnetic drums. For the last twenty years he has been a freelance writer specializing in storage and other computer issues.