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Microsoft's storage push

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What's new in R2?
The R2 release of Microsoft Windows Server and Windows Storage Server includes several critical additions that expand storage-related capabilities.
  • STORAGE MANAGER FOR SANs: Snap-in application that directly integrates management of small SANs with the Windows platform.
  • FILE SERVER RESOURCE MANAGER: File management tool with more advanced policy-level controls; sets and controls dynamic group settings across geographies.

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  • BETTER NAS PERFORMANCE: Expect 10% to 25% performance gains due to registry changes by OEMs.
  • SINGLE-INSTANCE STORAGE: Support for single-instance storage at the file level on Windows Storage Server.
  • BETTER NFS: Improved NFS performance (doubling its previous SPECsfs benchmark) and support for eight-node scale-out.
  • BUILT-IN QUOTA MANAGEMENT: Support for automated quota management, based on administrator-defined parameters.

File serving and NAS
The backbone of Microsoft's storage strategy has been file serving on Windows Server, which has evolved into a mature NAS offering with Windows Storage Server (WSS) 2003. In April, Microsoft plans to ship the next version, Windows Storage Server 2003 R2. Available only through designated OEMs (now numbering more than 50), WSS has quickly become the NAS platform of choice for low-end enterprise file serving. Microsoft claims 54% of the NAS market, based on total unit shipments. It should be noted that Microsoft-based NAS is predominately in the lower end of the NAS market. WSS is cheap to acquire and deploy, receives consistently good reliability marks from users and has easy-to-use management tools. WSS demonstrates that Microsoft can "do storage."

However, since WSS emerged in 2003, enterprise storage professionals have been wrestling with how many "heavy-duty" storage applications they could safely move to the platform. To name just a few of its shortcomings, NFS performance was abysmal, Unix clients were treated as second-class citizens and WSS lacked built-in quota management. While WSS has a good track record in small- to medium-sized businesses and departmental environments, its capabilities as an enterprise-class NAS offering have remained largely untested. Major OEMs like HP have made hay with the WSS platform, but in the $50,000 and lower price category. However, key improvements in the upcoming R2 release may broaden WSS' appeal.

The platform will be faster. Microsoft hasn't made much noise about it, but it has allowed its OEMs to optimize the registry settings in WSS for NAS workloads. The result is a 10% to 25% file-serving performance gain over the standard Windows Server platform, depending on the workload. To provide some context, Windows Server 2003 R2 on an HP ProLiant 585 scored 4.1Gb/sec, as tested by NetBench and using its benchmark.

R2 will also significantly improve NFS performance, delivering 22,000 IOPS on a single node vs. the 10,000 IOPS to 12,000 IOPS previously delivered (SPECsfs testing on an HP ProLiant 585). Microsoft also says it will support multinode clustering on NFS in 2006, with up to eight nodes and linear scalability. This level of NFS performance would be appropriate for many heterogeneous NAS environments up to the enterprise midrange.

Other WSS R2 enhancements include single-instance storage at the file level, and full-content index searching of the data store. On the file-server management front, the File Server Resource Manager (FSRM) also brings some much needed file-level controls regarding quota management, capacity reports by group, file screening and duplication controls. While FSRM in R2 is solid, it doesn't support sophisticated policy automation like competing products from Acopia Networks, NeoPath Networks Inc. or NuView Inc. However, as a feature of a server platform, it's impressive.

Despite the R2 release improvements, it's still questionable if Microsoft NAS can compete with the likes of NetApp or EMC. The issues are performance and throughout. With R2, Microsoft is taking on established high-performance NAS players for the first time. It's doing this by coupling Windows Server 2003 R2 with the Windows version of PolyServe Inc.'s Matrix Server, a cluster file system (CFS). The combined solution creates the first symmetric, scalable CFS-based NAS cluster based entirely on a Microsoft platform, which can compete effectively on a price/ performance basis with high-end NAS.

Given these advances, 2006 should be a good year for Microsoft in the file serving and NAS markets. Storage professionals should evaluate Microsoft-based systems for more demanding data center tasks. Consider the R2 release as a harbinger of things to come from Microsoft in the world of enterprise NAS.

This was first published in March 2006

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