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Microsoft sees opportunity in IT hinterlands

Remote corporate sites have long been an IT backwater. Microsoft hopes to entice companies to upgrade those locations by offering new branch-office features for Windows clients and servers.

Though IT managers wish it weren't so, branch offices often fall below corporate standards when it comes to basic software, tools and services.

It's not uncommon for remote

As the size of files grows, having data centrally located is hard for branches.

Eric Kuzmack, IT architect, Gannett Company Inc.

sites to be connected to the home office by frame relay networks or T1 links. Branches are also where you are likely to find Windows NT and some creaky line-of-business applications.

Microsoft has long eyed opportunity in the branch office and is making a concerted effort to get customers to upgrade servers and clients at remote locations. The software company is also adding features to its existing servers that will help keep the data in branch offices more in line with what resides on corporate servers.

At the TechEd conference earlier this month, Microsoft discussed a feature in Windows Server 2003 R2, due out later this year, called Distributed File System (DFS) replication. Within DFS is an algorithm called Remote Differentiation Compression, which makes it possible to send only changes made to a file over a wire, so at the branch office, an individual need only replicate the changed parts between two files on a WAN.

Replicating files changes via a WAN

A second technology, called Similarity, will appear in Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition. Similarity looks at multiple files to determine where the differences are and then replicates only those changes over the WAN, said Ravi Gopal, a product manager in the branch office group at Microsoft. A server that is being replicated must be running R2 Enterprise Edition.

Microsoft will also release an update to XP SP2 to better enable the client to take advantage of these technologies. Late this year, Microsoft plans to add Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS) caching support to the Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server. BITS uses leftover bandwidth to transfer files.

Size limitations over a T1 line

These technologies will help IT managers who have a tough time meeting the bandwidth requirements of users in remote offices. "As the size of files grows, having data centrally located is hard for branches," said Eric Kuzmack, IT architect at Gannett Company Inc., the McLean, Va.-based newspaper publisher.

"A 20 meg file can't work over a T1 link, so having technology to improve [communications] for users in branch offices or even allowing them to work when the WAN is down is good," he added.

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Microsoft is planning similar improvements in platforms such as Exchange Server and SQL Server, as well as some of its line-of-business servers, in the future, Gopal said.

Compliance comes into play

Experts say bringing branch offices up to the same standard as the home office is becoming more important, particularly as new regulatory rules enter the picture.

"Maintaining different data sets, which may be subsets or overlaps of common data back home, introduces significant challenges from a compliance standpoint," said William Hurley, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, in Milford, Mass. "Contracts may be lost, data may be out of sync or old. Users may not be aware that the data they are using is incorrect."

Microsoft has already taken some steps to make it easier to maintain a centralized store of files of data. With Windows Server 2003, Microsoft introduced Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS), which takes a snapshot -- or shadow copy -- of the content stored on selected volume shares. The technology only stores changes, not the entire content share.

"Through caching and virtualized and distributed technologies, you can more easily maintain a manageable and consistent file and data system to branch offices," Hurley said.

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