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Microsoft aims for more reliability, respect in data center

Microsoft has started a program to drive down the downtime as well as win more respect from IT managers. One analyst says that the new Datacenter High Availability Program could help Microsoft counter critics who say Windows has a reliability problem.

Microsoft is still trying to chip away at criticisms that its server software is not up to snuff in terms of reliability. This week, the company has released enhancements aimed at keeping its software platforms running with diminished downtime.

Though none of the improvements are industry innovations, they are necessary additions that should help IT managers who run high-traffic data centers take Windows platforms more seriously, said Jonathan Eunice, president and principal analyst at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H.-based consulting firm.

Microsoft has offered some new guidelines through its Datacenter High Availability Program, that may raise reliability expectations for Windows Server 2003 and its Datacenter edition. The program will offer enhancements, including improved pretested OEM configurations and expanded support options, including a High Availability Resolution Queue, for round-the-clock support service.

Windows Server 2003, which ships in April, will offer some improvements to the way the server handles device drivers. A feature called Windows Driver Protection prevents drivers with known problems from updating and directs customers to an updated version, company executives said.

The company has also added a feature that isolates applications from one another so that a crashed application does not interrupt the activities of any other application. It added an improvement to IIS 6.0 that cuts application and system failures due to memory leaks. It added memory mirroring to ensure fast failover of fault tolerant servers, and it added some new clustering capabilities.

Microsoft claims that innovations in Windows Server 2003 will cut downtime by 40%. The company released plans for Microsoft Reliability Service, which will monitor event data from customer servers, analyze the data and produce tailored reliability reports.

All of the improvements to Windows Server 2003 and its Datacenter edition are features that are in the market and used by other operating systems, Eunice said. Windows was conceived as a single-user operating system so, as a server platform, it has lot of growing up to do.

Application process separation is a feature long supported by Unix and other platforms. Windows' problems are system resources like the DLLs that are a mess, and the registry is open for everyone to fiddle with. "It's not just about processes," Eunice said. "You have to separate administration and support from these processes."

Features like application recycling, memory mirroring and clustering are all features that companies like IBM have supported for years.

In general, Eunice said that he thinks Microsoft gets a bum rap about its reliability and that the server platform has come a long way since the mid-'90s, even though it's still playing catch-up to other vendors. "They came to this game much later than the Suns and the IBMs, so there is a natural progression [Microsoft] has to go through."

One early data center customer said that although he is not sure how soon his company will upgrade to the upcoming version of Windows Server 2003 Datacenter, he is glad to see Microsoft including features and functions that early users wanted from this 2-year-old product.

Mark Richards, principal consultant at La-Z-Boy Inc., Monroe, Mich., said that one of the most important new functions in the upcoming version of Datacenter will be improvements to affinity settings, which let customers manage their servers down to the process. The server will also include more granular management capability that wraps in some of the features of Application Center, Microsoft's management software designed for server clusters.

Richards also said that the server is stable and reliable, as long as customers follow instructions to use only certified products that are pretested to work with the software.

FOR MORE INFORMATION's Best Web Links on high availability and fault tolerance's Best Web Links on Windows Server 2003

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