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Storage managers grapple with Windows

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Windows as a
management platform
In the networked storage world, the issue of which platform

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the management software runs on doesn't have the same relevancy as with direct-attached storage (DAS) where the management software and data are on the same box, in many cases. Most storage management software can manage storage that contains data from either Windows or Unix servers, not to mention NetWare, Linux and other operating systems. Nonetheless, the operating environment for management software does have definite implications for cost, capability and stability.

With the launch of Windows Server 2003, storage management software developers can deploy Unix-like features such as the Virtual Disk Service (VDS) virtualization engine and Volume Shadow Copy Services (VSS) snapshot technology. As Microsoft closes the gap with Unix, the advance of Windows-based storage management software may well kick off a commoditization process similar to what Windows instigated and other server software.

"In the area of management, the barrier of entry has been very high," says Ed Cooper, vice president of marketing with (now Computer Associates) Netreon, Inc. of Mountain View, CA. "All that was available was Unix-based SAN management at price points well upwards of $100,000. And Unix is an extremely complex environment to get up to speed on. Instead of going after the high-end market, we decided to bring management to the everyday common folk."

Larger storage software vendors such as Veritas and Legato have straddled the fence, porting many of their storage management tools to support Windows 2000 and Unix. Other companies specifically choose to focus on Windows storage management because network services such as Microsoft's Active Directory ease the burden of providing robust authentication and access control solutions.

Still, many smaller vendors aren't convinced that Windows is necessarily the best platform for storage management. For example, FalconStor Software, of Melville, NY, consciously restricted its IPStor multiprotocol SAN middleware to run on Linux and Sun Solaris, although it can manage Windows volumes on the SAN.

"We looked at the different operating systems out there to base the product on, and Linux and Solaris proved to be the most robust and stable," says co-founder and vice president Dr. Eric Chen, adding that better access to those environments' source code has made it easier to access the low-level operating system features required by a product like IPStor.
Storage area networks (SANs) may have started out as largely Unix creatures, but no longer. With the price of SANs coming down, more and more Windows servers at a growing number of companies are attaching to SANs.

Network-attached storage (NAS) is also a popular approach to accommodating data growth for Windows applications.

For storage managers, increased reliance on networked storage for Windows brings with it new management challenges. Windows behaves differently than Unix and requires dissimilar processes and procedures for some tasks, such as bare metal restore. Heterogeneous shops must decide how to manage the two environments as islands or in a unified manner.

Even Windows-only shops must decide whether they want to use that platform for management functions that require high security or stability, such as virtualization. Despite all these issues, though, networked storage is gaining momentum for Windows shops.

Case in point: QuadGraphics, Pewaukee, WI, prepress and printing specialist with more than 10,000 employees in 18 sites nationwide, which recently began upgrading its server and storage environment from Windows NT to Windows 2000.

With around 500 Intel-based servers and a SAN offering more than 25TB of managed storage, the migration is a major effort that's still progressing. Improved storage with Windows 2000 management features has made the upgrade more than worthwhile. For example, 24x7 storage availability is so fundamental to QuadGraphics' business, Intel server manager Rick Thomas says, "We live and die by digital storage."

He says, "When we had NT and needed to grow our storage to match our business, it was at the expense of production. The strides from NT to 2000 were extraordinary: utilization, performance and the ability to manage storage are vastly improved, and we can add storage sets without having to reboot. All of this allows for uptime to the user and lets us upgrade storage transparently."

QuadGraphics' positive experiences with Windows confirmed that the environment represents the way forward. Unix servers--once relied upon for what was once seen as their superior storage management--now support just a few high-availability databases. Future growth will largely deepen the company's investment in Windows-managed storage.

The path of least resistance
Storage managers with high-volume storage requirements are often already comfortable with Unix, and may be loathe to complicate things by introducing Windows servers offering little benefits when it comes to storage management. That's been the case for application service provider, Appshop, of Fremont, CA, where Unix storage predominates and Windows is only used where necessary.

Appshop offers customers a range of hosted Oracle applications using more than 250 Sun Microsystems Solaris 2.8 and HP-UX 11i Unix-based application and Web servers, 30 Windows-based servers and an array of Network Appliance F840 NAS devices providing 45TB of storage between data centers in Santa Clara, CA and Denver, CO.

Approximately 98% of storage is formatted using NFS3 to support the Unix servers, according to Mike Jennings, senior vice president of technology with Appshop, who says Windows is only used where a particular Oracle application hasn't been ported to Unix. Because the company's storage strategy has been to offload capacity onto the NAS boxes, Appshop has been able to ensure quick recovery of servers by simply changing the IP address of hot-standby Unix systems, then remounting the volumes onto the servers.

Because Windows installations create unique configurations within the Windows Registry, failure recovery takes longer within Windows environments. Since uptime is key for Appshop, such delays negate any advantages Windows might provide. Backups are also easier, since production data largely comes off of the homogeneously configured volume.

"Supporting Windows is a challenge compared to Unix," says Jennings. "When you get to the NT environment, everything is heterogeneous; each OS has a different configuration within the registries. We've chosen the [Unix and NAS] direction to keep things simple. Because of the disk environment we run, it's been very straightforward."

This was first published in April 2003

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