Double your standards and double your fun

A look at a legitimate investigation by Jon Toigo regarding Microsoft Exchange Server 2000 and network-attached storage.

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Double your standards and double your fun
By Jon William Toigo

When it comes to chewing gum, dentists find themselves in the throws of a moral dilemma.

Economically speaking, the practice of gnashing away on stick after stick of Doublemint, Juicyfruit, or similar chewing gum products helps to put the proverbial butts into dentist's chairs each and every day all over the world.

I don't know the exact statistic, but chewing gum is probably right up there with microwave popcorn as a leading cause of dental maladies. The luckless consumer, with his lost fillings and shattered caps and bridges, translates into a lucrative opportunity for the odontological practitioner.

On the other hand, dentists are compelled by medical ethics to recommend against any practice that might harm the teeth, orthodonture or other natural or man-made masticators of their prospective customer base. As evidenced by the proliferation of nasty-tasting American Dental Association-approved chewing gum substitutes, the politically correct position on gum is to encourage the patient to just say no.

There's the rub. While endeavoring to remain economically solvent, dentists must encourage their clients to swear off from practices, like chewing bubble gum, that bring them business.

All this came to mind as the result of a recent investigation I conducted regarding Microsoft Exchange Server 2000 and network-attached storage (NAS).

As I read an email received from Redmond, I found myself in one of those conundrums that we all experience from time to time. Absentmindedly, I began humming the jingle from the old Doublemint gum television commercial. You might know the one I am referring to: "Double the flavor, double the fun. Double your pleasure with Doublemint gum?"

It took several hours and this column to purge the thing from my head. I write this now to help you to avoid a similar problem when it comes to storage technology....

Fact: Microsoft has not approved any NAS platforms, including any based on its own NAS software development toolkit, to host the data associated with its Exchange 2000 mail server. The vendor cites possible conflicts between Exchange server program calls and NAS-enabling protocols to justify its position. Spokespersons further state that, while they are aware that some storage vendors have demonstrated successful deployments of the software on their NAS platforms, Microsoft has not had a chance to test these deployments and therefore cannot certify them.

Fact: Many NAS vendors are upset with Microsoft -- especially since Exchange has proven to be a lucrative target for NAS deployment. (The cynical would say that it is the mail server's high failure rate, rather than anything special about the software itself, which makes the product ideally suited to deployment on NAS storage platforms. Network Appliance, for example, enables the rapid restoral of a failed Exchange server database hosted on its Filer through the use of special "snapshot technology" provided with the storage-centric operating system. Without this capability, says one customer, Exchange might not be worth the effort to deploy.) The bottom line is that consumers might stay away from NAS if it is not on Microsoft's approved platform checklist. NAS vendors tend to worry about that kind of thing.

Fact: Microsoft has not taken any interest in the development of new file access protocols such as the Direct Access File System (DAFS), which will enable file-based access to data on SANs, while at the same time providing the technological foundations for a new generation of application storage technologies that combine the plug-and-play deployment and manageability benefit of NAS with the scalability of SAN. In the world of standards development, where the one prerequisite for getting a vote is to show up, Microsoft has been noticeably absent. While Oracle, IBM, Intel and a host of other vendors have been working within the DAFS Collaborative and demonstrating storage solutions based on the technology at development conferences for the past 18 months, Microsoft has been nowhere to be found.

Hence my humming: Microsoft seems to be engaging in a double standard.

On the one hand, the vendor has assumed the "politically correct" position of NOT certifying storage technology for use by customers until it has tested it. In effect, the Redmondians are saying that storage should be selected based on application requirements ? a valid but often-overlooked point in these days of storage vendor hyperbole regarding "universal storage pools."

On the other hand, the vendor has abstained from acting proactively to certify existing storage platforms for use with its software ? presumably to maintain its vendor-neutral status. The company endorses no particular storage topology save by default that of internal disk deployed in Windows 2000 servers.

I am not a Microsoft basher. I happen to believe that, without Bill Gates and company, the world of personal computing would probably still be in roughly the same sorry shape as the present day world of storage area networks. When I first heard that Microsoft was imposing restrictions on the storage that could be used with its software, I confess that I was secretly pleased. Maybe the 600-pound gorilla could do some good by imposing de facto standards on a storage community that refuses to play nicely together.

However, with such power goes responsibility for its administration. Why, if NAS platforms exist that obviously "deliver the goods" with respect to Exchange mail hosting, has Microsoft not certified them? Why weren't they certified proactively -- prior to the release of the product -- so that they could be specified, together with memory and operating system requirements, on the outside of the shrink-wrapped software box?

Moreover, if Microsoft is going to certify storage platforms for use with their products, why aren't they actively involved ? or at least present and monitoring ? important standards development efforts such as DAFS? With VI- and Infiniband-based server architectures from Intel and others less than a year away from market, where are Microsoft's product pronouncements that either endorse or denounce the architecture or its correlative storage component, DAFS?

That humming sound in your head is the Doublemint jingle. It is background noise that can only be surmounted the old-fashioned way: don't depend on software vendors to call the shots on storage. Painful as it is, do the testing yourself.

This was first published in August 2001

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