What to make of Windows Storage Server 2008 R2

Microsoft is pushing Windows Storage Server as a NAS appliance, but a deeper look reveals it can also help with managing shared storage in virtual environments.

If you are not familiar with Windows Storage Server, it’s basically a version of Windows designed to provide optimized storage. Though it’s been around in various forms for quite some time now, I’ve found myself working with it more often over the past few months.

So what is Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 good for? Though it can be used for many things, I’ve found it especially useful when providing shared storage in virtual data centers. The basic idea behind this is that a single virtualization host could potentially be hosting dozens of virtual servers. If such a host were to fail it would take all of those virtual machines down with it, resulting in a major outage.

Of course, the fact that there are numerous virtual servers residing on the host also makes it impractical to take the host server down for maintenance. The solution to this problem is to cluster the host server. That way, if the host server failed or needed to be taken down for maintenance, the virtual servers could be transitioned to another cluster node.

One of the biggest challenges behind building this type of clustering solution is that the virtual hard drive files used by the individual virtual servers must reside on a shared storage volume so that they are accessible to every node in the cluster. This is where Windows Storage Server comes into play; by allowing you to create a virtual hard disk on the server’s physical storage and designate that virtual hard drive as an iSCSI target. You can then connect to the iSCSI target from the cluster nodes.

In my experience, Windows Storage Server works very well for this purpose. But if you look at Microsoft’s overview of Windows Storage Server 2008 R2, you’ll see that it barely mentions using the server as an iSCSI target. Instead, Microsoft is marketing Windows Storage Server primarily as a network-attached storage (NAS) appliance. This is further evidenced by the list of new features that are included in the R2 version:

  • Server Message Block (SMB) 2.1 -- SMB 2.1 is a new version of Microsoft’s SMB protocol that has been optimized for low-bandwidth connectivity.

  • Network File System (NFS) -- NFS makes it possible for UNIX / Linux clients to access Windows file shares.

  • Distributed File System (DFS) -- DFS allows a single namespace to span multiple file servers and also provides for file replication across multiple DFS servers.

  • File Services Resource Manager (FSRM) -- FSRM is a management and reporting interface for file servers.

  • File Classification Infrastructure (FCI) -- Having debuted in Windows Server 2008 R2, FCI is designed to better classify your data.

Windows Storage Server as a NAS appliance
When I first learned that Microsoft was marketing Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 as a NAS appliance, my first reaction was to question the company’s sanity. After I stopped and thought about it though, I began to realize that as a NAS appliance, Windows Storage Server actually fills a unique niche.

While there are plenty of NAS appliances that cost less than the ones that run Windows Storage Server, the Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 operating system makes it easy to integrate the appliance into an existing network. I have personally experimented with low-end NAS appliances and found that managing permissions is nearly impossible because the device does not recognize Active Directory accounts. Likewise, such appliances typically do not support the use of reporting, management or antivirus software.

On the other hand, it is possible to purchase a Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise edition for less than the cost of a Windows Storage Server appliance -- but that only gets you the software. You still have to purchase the server hardware and client access licenses. By the time you get everything you need the cost will likely be higher than if you had purchased a NAS appliance.

Of course, cost isn’t everything. The other advantage to using Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 as a NAS appliance is simplicity. Since the OS comes preloaded onto an appliance, you don’t have to worry about hardware compatibility issues or complicated deployments.

Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 is an OEM product, meaning you can’t simply order a Windows Storage Server license. You can only get Windows Storage Server by purchasing a server on which it has been preloaded by the manufacturer. If you want to try out Windows Storage Server before making a purchase commitment, however, Microsoft makes Windows Storage Server 2008 and R2 available to TechNet subscribers.

You can follow SearchWindowsServer.com on Twitter @WindowsTT.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft MVP for his work with Windows 2000 Server, Exchange Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. For more information, visit www.brienposey.com.

This was first published in January 2011

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