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Windows storage trends hit cost bump

Microsoft wants to make networked storage easier and more accessible. So, why are Windows administrators still staying away?

The trend away from direct-attached storage and toward networked storage continues to grow, but cost and complexity may be keeping Windows IT administrators from getting a piece of the action.

Some analysts said they believe price is still a big factor, and, for most businesses, DAS hardware is just cheaper and easier than making an investment in a storage area network (SAN) or network-attached storage (NAS). But is network storage close to becoming the norm in the enterprise environment?

"My sources say no," said Peter Pawlak, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, a Kirkland, Wash. consulting firm. "If you look at the cost per megabyte to get direct-attached storage these days, it's peanuts compared to a simple SAN," he said.

Instead, Pawlak thinks direct-attached storage is still very far from becoming obsolete. "There are many small and large shops not using SAN."

Contrary to Pawlak's findings, Claude Lorenson, senior product manager of storage technology in the Windows Server division at Microsoft, said Windows-run organizations are exploring external storage options at a rapid rate. That's especially true now as post-Sept. 11 concerns and legislative demands like Sarbanes-Oxley have put the demand for offsite storage space at an all-time high.

"Having storage on a network facilitates disaster recovery and business continuity planning," Lorenson said.

Complexity issues deflated

The trend away from DAS isn't new; it's been going on for years, Lorenson said, with 2003 as the turning point. In 2003, businesses began to put more money toward NAS or SAN capabilities, rather than direct attached. He points to figures from IDC in Framingham, Mass., which show 41% of storage sold in 2003 was direct-attached. The forecast for 2008 calls for just 17% of storage to be DAS.

What is new, according to Lorenson, is that the Windows administrator can take advantage of NAS or SAN capabilities much more easily. "Just two years ago, in the data center class, Windows admins would not be able to develop a NAS on the Windows platform. The technology was just too complex. They needed a storage admin to do that," said Lorenson.

Kevin McGrath, a senior storage administrator for the Portland, Maine-based Wright Express Corp., chose NAS over DA without regret. The fleet fueling company just last week completed a conversion from direct-attached to network-attached storage.

McGrath said he moved most of his company's corporate servers onto a NAS device with relative ease, and the decision to move away from direct-attached was mostly about long-term goals.

They should call it 'Simpler SAN' because none of it is simple -- but it is easier than it was.
Peter Pawlak, Directions on Microsoft,

"Central management is the key there," said McGrath. "The timing is right. A lot of our DA was back-level Windows NT that desperately needed to be modernized. With NAS we saved on all the cost of those new servers. It went a long way toward nullifying an increase in cost."

McGrath, who manages servers running Unix and Windows, said things have become much more convoluted for Windows managers as storage moves offsite.

"The Windows admins who had been dealing strictly with DA, now they need to come to us to talk about storage," said McGrath. "They see another level of complexity. They don't get to carve up storage by themselves anymore. To some degree, maybe they are feeling a loss of control."

Microsoft's Lorenson said initiatives like his company's Simple SAN program, which launched in June 2005, have made it possible for administrators in shops of all sizes to be able to explore external storage options with less complication.

Microsoft's Simple SAN program is mainly geared toward small and medium-sized businesses, like Wright Express. It brings vendors together to cut the cost and complexity of deploying entry-level SANs in businesses that still depend on direct-attached storage. Microsoft currently has 20 partners in the program.

SANs serve up trend

"It used to be that SAN was only used in environments with 400 to 600 servers," Lorenson said. "Now we are seeing as little as 6 to 8 servers on a SAN."

And Lorenson said he believes the creation of iSCSI in recent years has made it possible for many more companies to convert to network-attached storage that are turned off the high price of Fibre Channel. IDC storage-tracking figures from the first quarter of 2005 indicate that installation of direct-attached storage averages close to $15 per gigabyte, but a Fibre Channel SAN averages well over $15. However, using iSCSI technology brings the price down considerably, to around $10 per gigabyte.

Pawlak, on the other hand, said the Simple SAN program has not dramatically changed the landscape in external storage because many Windows administrators still find the technology too complicated.

"They should call it 'Simpler SAN,'" Pawlak said, "because none of it is simple -- but it is easier than it was."

Microsoft's Lorenson said to look at the numbers for the true picture of where Windows shops are going. "While it is true that DAS hardware is cheaper, that is just one component of the total cost of ownership," he said.

Overall, the market for external disk storage is booming. According to figures released this month by IDC, factory revenue in the external disk storage systems market grew 8.6% in the second quarter of 2005. <

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