Microsoft widens role of Windows Storage Server

Microsoft Corp. this week announced at Storage Decisions 2003 the availability of Windows-based network-attached storage appliance software designed not only to provide easily connected networked storage but also to replace file and print servers in departmental or remote office locations.

The addition of file and print capabilities and other features in Windows Storage Server 2003 will pay dividends for network executives when that software lands in NAS appliances from Dell Inc., EMC Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. Such appliances could replace many of the installed file and print servers, analysts say.

“If you think about who Microsoft has displaced with Windows Storage Server 2003, it’s themselves – they’ve replaced general-purpose servers,” says Steve Duplessie, senior analyst with Enterprise Storage Group. “Half the data on Windows servers is file and print data.”

Bill Bailey, network manager for the 108th Division of the U.S. Army Reserve in Charlotte, N.C., has installed NAS servers in locations across four states.

“The reason we connected (beta) Windows Storage Server 2003 boxes was we wanted something our IT shops were familiar with and that would allow us to easily support multiple sites,” says Bailey, who used eight of Inline’s FileStorm NAS products to consolidate several existing file servers. Inline, a storage provider to government and corporate customers, has six NAS appliances based on Windows Storage Server 2003.

“There was absolutely no training involved in integrating it into our environment,” Bailey says.

Analysts also say users should consider Windows-based NAS for file and print services for no other reason than improved performance.

“There’s no question customers are going to want to replace Windows servers with a NAS appliance because of the efficiency factor and performance of Windows Storage Server is so great,” says Arun Taneja, a consulting analyst for Taneja Group. “Any computer can act as a file and print server, but it is inefficient because it is designed to do 50 other things such as run applications or Web services, not just file and print. When you look at consolidation, it’s a heck of a lot easier to do with a NAS product than to start growing file servers all over the place.”

Microsoft also has added other features to Microsoft Storage Server, including Volume Shadow Copy Services, which lets users recover their own deleted files; Virtual Disk Service; failover clustering capability and multipath I/O, which provides the establishment of multiple paths between servers and storage, thus improving availability and fault-tolerance. The software also is integrated with Microsoft’s Active Directory for additional management.

“We have mainly used (beta) Windows Storage Server 2003 for disaster recovery and business continuity from remote offices where we are doing disk-to-disk backup,” says Julian Morris, senior vice president and director of IT for DRAFT, an international marketing agency in Chicago that has 43 offices in 22 countries. “We have seen a reduction in back-up recovery time of 35 percent. In the event of a blackout, such as what happened a month ago, we can now have a live copy of that data to work on.”

Appliances using Windows Storage Server 2003 or earlier versions of Microsoft’s Server Appliance Kit are primarily saturating the low-end and midrange NAS market. IDC says that NAS devices that contain Windows server code accounted for 41 percent of the market in the first quarter.

However, Microsoft’s foray into storage has limits, says Bob Muglia, senior vice president of the company’s Enterprise Storage Division.

“The expertise Microsoft brings to this party is quite a bit different than what our storage partners provide,” Muglia says. “The place Microsoft can really (work) is at the file-management level. EMC and HP’s expertise is at managing blocks.”

NAS storage represents about one-third of the much larger storage array market. According to IDC, NAS products will account for US$1.77 billion this year.

Still, analysts say that any interest Microsoft shows in storage needs to be taken seriously.

“Every (NAS vendor) ultimately needs to see Microsoft as a threat,” Duplessie says.