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Microsoft fleshes out Storage Server upgrades

Microsoft announced enhancements to its DFS, took some time out to trash NFS and hinted at what's to come in the next major server release.

As scheduled, the "release candidate" version of Windows Server 2003, known as R2, has become an official product, slated for shipment in March. Microsoft also discussed the details of enhancements to the Storage Server version of R2, including enhancements to its namespace virtualization capabilities and the introduction of single-instance storage.

In general, the Storage Server version of Server 2003 includes more advanced NAS features, such as namespace virtualization to Microsoft's distributed file system (DFS). New enhancements to this feature, according to Radhesh Balakrishnan, group product manager of the Windows Server Division of Microsoft, include remote differential compression, which reduces WAN traffic by sending only changes to files over the wire, a feature common in WAN optimization products.

Microsoft has also brushed up the DFS management interface, "so that someone who doesn't even know what the process is can make it work," according to Balakrishnan.

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In general, Balakrishnan said, Microsoft's goal was not to break new ground in storage with this release but to make some basic features universal. "What we're after is the mainstream adoption of storage management technologies."

Balakrishnan also got in a dig at Network Appliance Inc., (NetApp) saying DFS was similar to technology made by Spinnaker, which NetApp acquired in 2003.

"But they haven't even integrated a namespace solution that's built in," Balakrishnan said. "And when they finally release it, they plan to charge extra."

There are other solutions out there that can do the same thing, analysts say. "They're certainly not the first ones to do any of this, but they're building it in -- it's always good to have these features right there in the OS," said Dennis Martin, analyst with the Evaluator Group.

Storage Server 2003 R2 will also include document collaboration capabilities among users in different locations. The server will export files to a SharePoint Services document library while they are being modified by default, Balakrishnan said.

Finally, Storage Server 2003 will also include the ability to do single-instance storage of data on back-end arrays, and what Balakrishnan called "indexing by default," the ability to do a full index search on back-end storage.

Storage Server also shares some storage features with the regular server OS that have just been recently added to R2, including upgrades to provisioning capabilities in the File Server Resource Manager tool, which will allow storage administrators to set quotas according to user, group of users or department, filtering of storage among different directories and rudimentary storage management tools for SANs. For more on R2's general storage enhancements, see Microsoft soups up storage for Server 2003, Sept. 8, 2005.

Branch offices: the real battlefield?

Some industry experts think these features point to a battle that isn't about enterprise storage at all, but rather a competition between Microsoft and Cisco Systems Inc.'s WAFS products, with the battlefield in the branch office.

"In the remote office integration space, there are two major things worth noting," said Brad O'Neill, senior analyst with the Taneja Group. "First, a distributed replication engine for DFS that can actually scale across multiple sites, which helps bring Microsoft into the enterprise-class namespace aggregation space. Second, their new compression engine makes remote office servers a lot more network efficient, which has been a historical bottleneck to seamless branch office deployments."

"Their storage tools are very weak. Enterprise users will never use them," said an industry expert who asked not to be named. "But if you're in the branch office you might use it -- and right now Cisco is trying to ask customers, 'what do you need a heavy duty Microsoft server in every office for when we have all these capabilities in one box'? This source added, "You'll notice the first thing Microsoft wants to talk about is the branch office application."

O'Neill agreed. "Over the next 24 months it will become very clear that the remote office is dominated by two major spheres of influence: Microsoft and Cisco …They represent two very different approaches with different strengths -- Cisco won't be making an OS and Microsoft won't be making routers, but they will definitely be fighting for control of the data path across geographies, just the same."

A slam on NFS

One of the selling points Microsoft is focused on with the R2 release is the ability to support the Linux and Unix-based NFS, originally hatched by Sun Microsystems Inc. Industry experts have presumed that the support is a sign of friendly relations between Microsoft and the Linux /Unix world, but comments by Balakrishnan tell a different story.

"Some vendors out in the market have been misguiding customers and telling them that they needed NFS because applications like CAD are traditionally stored on Linux and Unix systems for performance reasons," he said. "We knew that CIFS was what matters, since 90% of file traffic is run by clients on Windows systems, but frankly, this was a response to competitors who are misguiding customers about our file server performance."

Balakrishnan said that the new NFS capability on R2 is measured at 23,000 IOPS (I/O per second), and that the system would now also boast a total throughput of 4.1 Gbps in Netbench, a de facto standard for CIFS/SMB performance benchmark.

"I dare any vendor to beat that if they can," Balakrishnan said. "Were hoping to shut up all those people who have been questioning our performance capability."

But according to Martin, it's not necessarily about the performance. "Mine's faster than yours will go on forever," he said. "What's new here is that people can move their applications over to a Windows platform and still get the response from NFS they'd get on a Unix platform."

Hints toward the future

Microsoft makes updates to its Server OS software every two years, with a major new release every four. That means that for Server 2003, R2 represents the usual two-year "minor" release that includes enhancements. The next major release of server software is scheduled for 2007.

In that release, Balakrishnan said, "We will be adding more functionality to make the OS more relevant to a broader audience" -- meaning more advanced storage managers than those Microsoft's vision of "universality" and accessibility are aimed at currently.

What kind of features? Essentially, the storage trends currently taking hold in the marketplace, including tiered storage and information lifecycle management. Balakrishnan said the upcoming Office 12 release will include enhancements that Server 2007 can draw upon to create what he called an "end to end solution" in which Microsoft Office software authors a document, Server 2007 indexes and files it away, and then manages the data at the back end throughout its lifecycle.

"Right now we're more focused on live data," Balakrishnan said. "But we're looking at getting deeper into storage archiving and data classification since most data is generated using Microsoft Office."

The future iteration of Windows Storage Server will also add the ability to manage more than one file system, according to Balakrishnan.

"We will evolve," Balakrishnan said. "Right now the question is whether to manage multiple file systems at the directory level or according to policies -- how to set quotas using multiple file systems."

"It's not as big a deal in the Windows space as in the Unix space," Martin said. "They're taking a higher level approach to managing all data no matter what file system it's on."

As for the directory versus policy-level management, Martin said the actual product will probably use "a combination of both, depending on what kind of data you're storing."

The bottom line, Martin said, is that "there's always going to be higher end or more advanced products you can buy, but Microsoft is trying to get basic storage tools into the hands of everybody."

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