Feature Story: Road to Win2K-centric storage a slow journey

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Some customers are looking to Windows 2000 to help them consolidate and manage enterprise storage - but not for about a year, despite industry analysts recommending users go the centralized storage route.

Most corporate users are still in the throes of figuring out how to implement the new operating system, and simply haven't yet begun dealing with the storage issues. Instead, they're holding training classes for IT staffers, deciding what kinds of new hardware they need on both the desktop and server levels, and then scheduling the installation of Windows 2000 on first the desktop and then the servers.

It's not a simple process, and storage is pretty much the last thing on customers' minds at this point. Darren Patoni, manager of the information technology department at the Donor Network of Arizona in Phoenix, says that the whole idea of centralizing storage through Windows 2000 is pretty much "on the bleeding edge" for his shop right now. "We see the need for centralized storage," he explains, but at this point it's just easier to keep adding storage components to the individual servers.

Donor Network has already upgraded its servers to Windows 2000, but centralizing storage would require "looking at SAN options and a lot of other things that come into play," Patoni says. "There are a lot of nice [storage] features in Windows 2000, but before we go that route we want to make sure we check out all available options."

David Curry, LAN Administrator at the Seattle Mariners, agrees. "Storing data centrally is not a bad idea, but we have no plans to do it anytime soon. We have decentralized servers with their own RAID boxes, and that works fine for us right now." In the future, if and when the club does look to centralizing its storage, "we would consider doing it with Windows 2000 because it would fit with our current architecture."

That said, however, most industry analysts believe the trend is definitely going toward the centralization of storage, and that Windows 2000 will be a player in that market. It remains to be seen how well Windows 2000 will really work with the third-party storage devices and software already in use at large companies.

"We're recommending that users think very hard about using [centralized] enterprise storage rather than commodity-attached devices," says Ian Bramley, director of an enterprise user's forum at the Butler Group, a consultancy in London. "If you're looking at larger-scale Windows 2000 deployment, you should be looking at [moving to centralized] enterprise storage as well." Not adopting centralized storage means that customers won't be getting the full value of Windows 2000's "better systems management facilities," Bramley says.

However, to take advantage of Windows 2000's systems management features - dramatically improved over those in Windows NT - customers must begin consolidating servers and their associated storage facilities as quickly as possible, Bramley says.

With Windows NT, customers had the advantage of fairly low storage costs - but they paid a price in terms of managing and administrating separate server farms. If Windows 2000 does indeed become an enterprise-class operating system on the order of a mainframe, customers will need to rethink this philosophy, Bramley says.

"The cost of storage is three times the cost of server hardware," Bramley adds. "With the huge amounts of data coming from e-business, optimizing and managing the storage portfolio is in some ways becoming more critical than the servers." Plus, he says, with mainframe-class Windows 2000 machines already being sold - including one from Unisys Corp.- and the Datacenter edition of Windows 2000 on tap from Microsoft Corp., it's only a matter of time before customers will have to deal with enterprise-wide data within Windows 2000.

Daniel Kusnetzky, program director at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. wonders whether Windows 2000 - or any single operating system, for that matter - can really address all of a large customer's storage needs. The basic issue is that more functions are moving out from the main application processor into special-purpose boxes or networks dedicated to the task, and this includes storage. What this has meant, he explains, is the "virtualization" of storage - dealing with a snapshot of the data instead of the actual data itself.

"The big challenge for operating systems," Kusnetzky says, "is that none were built with the idea that storage would be virtualized. All were built with the idea that the operating system would have to optimize the storage" itself. The operating system - Windows 2000 or Unix or Linux - is trying to optimize storage at the same time the separate storage device or network is also trying to optimize storage. It becomes a fight over which is the dominant mechanism for optimizing storage, which can lead to problems. "Compatibility is an issue," he says.

Kusnetzky also wonders how well Windows 2000 will really play in a multi-vendor storage situation, which is the case at almost every customer of any size. "It puzzles me why Microsoft set up the [Windows 2000] defaults to assume an all-Microsoft network," he says. Customers can change the options, but the operating system comes out of the box in this mode, he adds.

Butler Group's Bramley, in Microsoft's defense, points out that Windows 2000 has "done a strong job of interoperability - they do support a lot of standards and provide tools for interoperating with other databases, applications and tools."

In storage, particularly, Microsoft has teamed up with EMC Corp., Veritas Software Corp. and others to strengthen the third-party tools available for Windows 2000 and "better support EMC's Symmetrix and Data General's Clariion storage" within the operating system. More third-party deals are in the works, Bramley figures, with industry leaders including Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and IBM Corp. All in all, he says, "we don't see huge gaps."

Despite all the advice, however, most customers are going slowly down the road to centralized storage, with or without Windows 2000. As Roonj Uabhaibool, manager of worldwide networking services at Peoplesoft, Inc. in Pleasanton, Calif. and a Windows 2000 customer, points out, "We have 40 sites, each with a file server. We're looking into the centralization of storage, but we've got a lot of other things to do first. If it's not broken, why fix it?"

Ambrosio is a contributing editor in Marlborough, Mass.

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