Microsoft aims .Net Server at storage

When you think of storage vendors, the first name that comes to mind isn’t likely Microsoft Corp. But the software behemoth wants to change that.

Microsoft expects the delivery of its forthcoming Windows .Net Server late this year to be the linchpin of the company’s revamped storage strategy. To accomplish its goals of becoming a stronger player in the storage game, the company will implement a two-pronged approach. First it will add a slew of new capabilities to Windows .Net Server and a smaller number of improvements to Windows 2000 Server. Then Microsoft will provide vendors with APIs and technologies they can use so their equipment and software will work better with Microsoft’s newest operating system.

This isn’t Microsoft’s first foray into the storage realm. Previous operating systems such as Windows NT Server of Win 2000 shipped with storage features either as a capability of the operating system or as packages that could be used if a company didn’t have any other tools. The company also bundled a stripped-down version of Veritas Software’s NetBackup with NT Server, and focused on building support for a variety of file systems including the NT File System (NTFS), Network File System (NFS) and the File Allocation Table into the NT operating system. Win 2000 added to these capabilities by enhancing operating system support for NTFS, managing removable media such as CD-ROM and tape, and adding minimal support for storage-area networks (SAN). With its upcoming .Net Server, the company has determined that its operating system must play a more important role with storage.

Among the storage enhancements Microsoft plans for its upcoming Windows .Net Server and Win 2000 Server are:

— Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) in .Net Server, which lets users create point-in-time copies of application data from Microsoft applications such as SQL Server or Exchange without disrupting operations.

— Software code for VSS that lets vendors adapt their own snapshot and point-in-time copy software to work better with Microsoft applications.

— A Virtual Disk Service that consists of APIs that let software vendors manage block-level storage virtualization from within Windows.

— New architectural features that enhance the scalability and reliability of the operating system, including support for the iSCSI in .Net Server and multipathing support for Fibre Channel SANs in .Net Server and Win 2000 Server to increase redundancy and provide fault-tolerant operations.

— Automated System Recovery in .Net Server and Win 2000, which lets administrators restore failed systems from a recovery CD in the event of a failure.

— New management features and command-line utilities for .Net Server include the ability to create multiple Distributed File System roots without adding more servers, a new version CHKDSK that is faster than the Win 2000 Server version and performance boosts for the Common Information File System and the NFS.

“Microsoft is trying to make its platform as storage-friendly as possible,” says Nancy Marrone, senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group. “This means including some value-added features like VSS, but also making the software friendly enough for third-party vendors to be able to write applications and drivers that provide additional value-added storage services.”

One of the company’s first efforts at making its operating system more storage-friendly is the Server Appliance Kit (SAK), which the company introduced in September 2000. The SAK lets hardware developers such as Dell, IBM or Hewlett-Packard build network-attached storage (NAS) devices that have NT embedded as their operating system.

“Microsoft’s first deliverable to the storage market, Windows Powered NAS, achieved a significant market presence,” Marrone says. Devices that use the SAK captured 25% of the NAS market in the third quarter of 2001, according to IDC.

While users are generally pleased with Microsoft’s efforts to bolster its support for storage with efforts such as the SAK and the Virtual Disk Service, most say the company should focus on operating system improvements alone. Some users would prefer to see Microsoft leave the development of stand-alone back-up, virtualization or replication software and products to storage hardware and software vendors.

“The easier Microsoft can make it to utilize the software the large storage vendors have to offer, the better,” says John Studdard, CTO at the Virtual Bank in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Studdard has 110 NT servers connected to EMC Symmetrix storage. “I would be hesitant to accept [Microsoft’s storage strategy] if what Microsoft was trying to do was replace the underlying functionality companies like EMC bring to the table.”

Studdard says he has EMC tools that do the same thing.

“We had these needs before Microsoft determined they needed to address them,” he says. Studdard uses software from EMC to back up, replicate and protect his storage.

Terry Roedecker, senior network manager for a large financial institution in the Midwest, concurs.

“Microsoft should not provide these items, or at least not most of them,” Roedecker says. “Microsoft’s strength is making [operating systems] and applications. At the most, [the company] should partner with vendors to help provide better integration with the core [operating system], but Microsoft should not be the one providing the storage enhancements.”

And it won’t be. To bulk up how its operating systems and applications work with third-party vendors, the company is providing APIs and technologies in a variety of areas. For SQL Server and Exchange, Microsoft is encouraging vendors to develop writers, which lets their software and hardware integrate more closely with VSS.

The company also is providing APIs for Virtual Disk Service, which provides a single interface vendors can use to make their virtualization products work better with .Net Server.

In spite of all the changes to storage Microsoft is making, analysts say there’s still a lot Microsoft could do with ease of use at the file system layer and interactivity with back-end storage.

Jamie Gruener, senior analyst with The Yankee Group, says Microsoft should focus on enhancing the storage management capabilities of the operating system.

“As opposed to making some general changes to make it easier, they need to think about how they can take advantage of the innovation each of the vendors is doing such as virtualization, policy-based management and integration with the Windows management console,” Gruener says.

Marrone says the company is doing that.

“Microsoft realizes [it doesn’t] want to re-create the wheel, so if there are third-party applications that target [its] focal areas, such as data and enterprise storage management, [Microsoft] will aggressively partner with them,” she says.

Partnering is one part of the answer, openness the other. Microsoft also is releasing APIs that give Fibre Channel SAN vendors a standard way to provide multiple redundant paths between servers running Win 2000 or .Net Server and storage devices. In .Net Server, Microsoft has standardized the capability of adding multiple paths for redundancy and fault-tolerance between servers and storage devices in a SAN. It also has created a new driver architecture called the StorPort model that lets NAS devices, SAN devices and direct-attached storage work in .Net environments.

Microsoft also says it will develop an iSCSI driver for .Net Server that will be available after the protocol is standardized this fall.

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