Inside Windows Storage Server

Microsoft's WSS 2003 is an inexpensive way to network file storage, and it's also emerging as the main way to put Exchange on NAS. But Windows patch issues may prove troublesome.

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WSS 2003 OEM offerings
Windows Storage Server 2003 (WSS) is only available through OEMs that bundle the operating system with their hardware. The list of OEMs includes vendors such as Dell Computer Corp., EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and Iomega Corp. Prices start at less than $1,000 for approximately 160GB of storage (these devices usually require memory upgrades for the best performance) and range to more than $30,000 for high-end devices that scale to many terabytes and provide redundancy.

For example, EMC's NetWin 200 is an entry-level network-attached storage (NAS) device that combines WSS with the company's line of Clariion networked storage systems. It sports two 3.06GHz Intel Xeon processors, 2GB of memory, a RAID controller and two 36GB disks.

HP offers a full line of storage products based on WSS 2003. At the low end, the StorageWorks NAS 1200 is an entry-level NAS for small businesses. It's available in three capacities: 320GB with a 2.4GHz P4 processor, 640GB with a 2.8GHz P4 processor and 1TB with the 2.8GHz processor. Each comes with 512MB of memory and redundancy. They are preconfigured with a RAID 5 volume. The higher end products--StorageWorks 2000, 4000 and 9000--are available in a variety of configurations.

With a steadily growing share of the network-attached storage (NAS) market--currently at 41% according to research firm International Data Corp.--Microsoft Corp. has upped the ante with the latest incarnation of its storage operating system, Windows Storage Server 2003 (WSS). Microsoft hopes the low cost and easy management of NAS devices built around WSS will give NAS stalwarts, such as Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp), a run for its money.

Emphasizing Microsoft's renewed thrust into the storage market are the recent announcements from OEMs supporting WSS. Hardware and software vendors, such as EMC Corp., Legato (a division of EMC) and Veritas Software Corp., have lined up behind the operating system with a broad range of products that exploit new WSS features. Perhaps the most significant addition to WSS is Microsoft's Feature Pack, which supports Exchange e-mail databases. Other key WSS features include:

  • Volume Shadow Copy Services (VSS)
  • Multipath I/O (MPIO) support
  • Improved integration with SANs
  • iSCSI support
  • Web-based management interface (in addition to the Microsoft Management Console snap-in)
  • Exchange support (with the Feature Pack)
The SAK evolves
First shipped late last year, WSS evolved from the Windows 2000 Server Appliance Kit (SAK). WSS takes advantage of its Windows Server 2003 foundation. For example, VSS allows point-in-time copies of data for backup and restoration, providing more advanced data protection and backup capabilities. MPIO provides redundant I/O paths and iSCSI overcomes the limitations of Serial SCSI by providing block-based storage over IP networks. According to Microsoft, WSS also provides better file-server performance than the SAK; it claims a 50% improvement. One compelling argument for WSS is its Web-based user interface that makes configuration and management much easier.

In fact, simplicity is one of the product's strengths. The Web-based user interface provides wizards for setup, configuration and ongoing management. Rick Bauer, CIO of The Hill School in Pottstown, NJ, says it's easy and intuitive. "We like the fact that the WSS fits our needs without a lot of drama or overhead."

Compared to previous versions of Microsoft's storage operating systems, WSS offers more full-featured quota management and improved storage utilization reporting. These features are built into the operating system--you aren't required to purchase additional management applications from OEMs. As might be expected, WSS supports Microsoft's Active Directory, which allows it to use established policies for security enforcement. According to Microsoft, WSS supports all major network operating system protocols, including NFS, NetWare, AppleTalk and HTTP. Most OEMs ship their WSS devices with a mirrored operating system partition and a RAID 5 data partition. To add the device to the network, just set the IP address, the computer name and then join the domain.

Easy to configure
Tony Asaro, senior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), agrees that WSS 2003 is "extremely easy to configure and manage." He adds that "you can get it up and running in less than an hour." For file sharing applications, Asaro says you can ship these devices to remote offices and then configure them remotely.

WSS 2003 is optimized for file sharing. It provides familiar management interfaces and integrates with a Windows-based infrastructure. Another key application--particularly as OEMs expand their offerings and the cost of disk continues to fall--is backup to disk.

For example, WSS 2003 provides backup and recovery for remote offices because you can replicate data from a storage server at the remote office to a server at the central site, and then back up the replicated data. This approach ensures ongoing data backup without requiring a backup window. Jason Buffington, director of business continuity, NSI Software, Hoboken, NJ, says, "I am a big fan of this solution."

Competitive advantage
Due to its simplicity and easy integration with existing Windows-based infrastructures, WSS 2003 is a good choice for smaller shops already committed to a Microsoft infrastructure. This choice is more difficult for large shops and those dedicated to Unix.

"WSS is an extremely cost-competitive NAS solution that the market has mistakenly thought of as the low-end alternative to NetApp," says Asaro. For organizations primarily using Windows servers, he adds, Microsoft's Windows NAS solution makes sense. It's essentially another Windows server that allows users to consolidate storage and provide file sharing to their company. And moderately sized Exchange environments (up to 1,500 mail boxes) can also use it for e-mail storage. Unix and Linux users tend to avoid using Microsoft NAS because of cultural--rather than functional--issues, says Asaro.

NetApp, Asaro adds, has transcended being a NAS company, while still providing one of the best and most popular enterprise NAS products. NetApp's Ontap operating system provides high-end data snapshots and mirroring as well as a rich set of enterprise data management applications such as FilerView and MultiStore. NetApp also provides SAN products and can support any application. NetApp's NearStore software provides disk-to-disk backup that creates multiple tiers of storage as part of a lifecycle management strategy. And according to Asaro, "they have done a great job of integrating all of their data management software across all of their solutions."

Some leading software vendors, such as CommVault Systems Inc., Computer Associates International Inc., KVS Inc., Legato, NSI Software and Veritas Software Corp., recently announced that they will provide applications that work in conjunction with WSS.

Kelly Polanski, vice president of availability solutions for Legato, calls WSS "a very robust feature-rich platform that complements NetWorker." Veritas tweaked its Backup Exec and NetBackup applications to take advantage of WSS' Volume Shadow Copy and to work within its management interface. Its StorageCentral taps into Active Directory to help provide enterprisewide policy management.

Patching concerns
Potential customers may be concerned about Microsoft's history of providing patches to customers who bought OEM-bundled versions of its server operating systems, particularly Windows-powered NAS devices. There was often a significant delay between the time Microsoft released a critical patch and the time that it was made available to users by the OEMs.

"Part of the reason for going with dedicated NAS is reliability," says Scott Blancett, senior project manager, Johns Manville Corp., Denver, CO, who evaluated WSS 2003 and rejected it based largely on the patch issue. "We have to patch our Windows boxes, and we'll have to patch this one, too. A proprietary system would be less likely to need patching. That was our main reason for going to a non-Windows NAS appliance." The company chose NAS 8000 from Hewlett Packard Co. (HP) instead of WSS. "The dedicated HP device is more expensive, but we were able to justify it with its ease of use and the lack of needing to patch it frequently," he says.

Microsoft is trying to address the security patch problem. Marcus Schmidt, senior product manager of WSS 2003, says, "If there are critical security patches, go directly to Windows Update. If there are non-critical patches, we still recommend that you go to the OEM first to get those." The OEMs want to test patches on their platforms before making them available to their customers.

Going forward
WSS has garnered a significant slice of the NAS market. As the market continues to grow and more vendors get behind it, there will be additional applications for Microsoft NAS. For example, ESG's Asaro anticipates applications for WSS 2003 such as multimedia, streaming video and reference data. " More people are going to adopt Microsoft NAS for these types of applications."

This was first published in August 2004

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