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Windows Storage Server 2012 adds enterprise-grade features

Microsoft added enterprise features to Windows Storage Server 2012, but experts say it's unlikely to result in enterprise demand for the OEM product.

Microsoft's Windows Storage Server 2012 packs in more enterprise-grade features than prior editions, but the recently released software likely will continue to find its sweetest spot with small- to mid-sized businesses and departments of large companies.

A storage-focused OS based on the underlying technology of Windows Server 2012, Storage Server is specifically for network-attached storage (NAS) and iSCSI storage systemssold by OEMs. It includes new capabilities such as data deduplication, the scalability-boosting Resilient File System (ReFS), Server Message Block (SMB) 3.0 protocol improvements, and Storage Spaces virtualization technology to create storage pools and enable failover between multiple nodes. IBM, Dell and Hewlett-Packard all build low-end NAS systems around Windows Storage Server 2012. Overall, Microsoft claims more than 60 partners have sold NAS systems running its storage operating system.

"The biggest improvement for Windows is the ability to have continuously available services," Scott M. Johnson, a program manager on Microsoft's hybrid storage services team, wrote in an email. Johnson claimed Microsoft can now deliver five-nines availability with scale-out file server capabilities in network file system (NFS), SMB (formerly CIFS) and iSCSI environments.

Despite the improvements, Windows Storage Server 2012 faces an uphill climb, cracking a NAS market dominated by major vendors such as EMC Corp. and NetApp Inc., which together take in more than 70% of the revenue in the total NAS/unified storage hardware market, according to market research firm Gartner Inc. According to Gartner, the lower-cost Windows Storage Server platform -- which Microsoft licenses to OEMs and distributors that resell it with hardware -- accounts for only 2.1% of total revenue. Unit sales figures were unavailable from Gartner.

"It's an important release from Microsoft, but in the general purpose file server market, they're just going to have a tough time getting significant share," said Werner Zurcher, a research director for storage-oriented technologies at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. "The reason they're at 2.1% market share is because this availability stuff has taken so long to get there. Microsoft had once upon a time a predominant position, and there are now a lot of competitors that have taken it upon themselves to get their own offerings."

Major OEMs that license Windows Storage Server (WSS) -- Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM -- tend to favor their own technology in their enterprise-level products and use Windows Storage Server with their low-end hardware.

"The low- and mid-range segment of the market is dominated by Microsoft Windows servers and applications," said Jim Hankins, a worldwide product manager at HP via email, "so it makes sense for HP to partner with Microsoft on providing a storage solution to this part of the market that was tightly integrated with the Windows IT infrastructure and application workloads."

HP plans to start shipping Windows Storage Server 2012 in the fourth quarter in its X1000 G2, X3000 G2 and X5000 G2 storage systems, which range in price from $5,000 to $60,000. Those products compete with Dell's PowerVault NX line as well as EMC’s VNXe 3100/3300 and VNX5300 and NetApp's FAS2000 and FAS3000 products.

Like HP, Dell confirmed plans to support Windows Storage Server 2012 in low-end PowerVault NX NAS products, even though the company now maintains its own Fluid File System for NAS. IBM's website indicates it has WSS 2012-based NAS and NAS gateways currently available. Many smaller vendors also sell WSS with their hardware.

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Several storage analysts said the storage features in Windows Server 2012 and WSS 2012 represent significant improvement and some radical changes over Microsoft's 2008 editions of the products.

Russ Fellows, a senior partner at Evaluator Group Inc. in Boulder, Colo., said Microsoft's support for NFSv4.1, facilitating parallel data transfer from multiple sources to one client, and SMB 3.0 are "very big," because those protocols could "change the nature of NAS storage and storage in general over time."

"What makes SMB 3 a big deal is that now Microsoft is supporting it in many, many more environments, such as with SQL Server, etc. This is big because it means most low-end environments that had to use iSCSI no longer need to do so," Fellows wrote in an email.

Nik Simpson, a research director at Gartner, cited the importance of ReFS as a "modern replacement" for NTFS on data stores. "NTFS is a fine file system, but it was designed in the days when a big file system was a few gigabytes. Things like file system check are getting to be painfully slow when you're starting [to talk] about multi-terabyte file systems," Simpson said.

"NTFS doesn't handle recovery well if there is a failure in one part of the file system. From a purely storage perspective, Windows Storage Server 2012 is radically different," Gartner's Zurcher said. "You have the concepts of storage pools, Storage Spaces, the new file system -- all completely different from what you had in Windows Storage Server 2008, which was more reliant on underlying software RAID and external RAID controllers and didn't have any organizational capabilities for storage that were widely used to make storage more available. It involved standard Windows technologies, if you will, that were exactly the same as the previous releases from Windows 2000 onwards."

Microsoft sells two versions of WSS 2012 through OEMs and distributors. The workgroup edition is for 50-user environments and application server storage, and its licensing is for a single socket and up to 32 GB of RAM. The standard edition permits 2 TB of RAM, unlimited users and connections, and two virtual machines (VMs) running on Microsoft's Hyper-V that can be "stack licensed" in increments of two sockets and two VMs.

"Typically storage solutions are not virtualized," Microsoft's Johnson noted, "but it is an option that can be useful for things like multi-domain storage solutions."

Microsoft made available WSS 2012 on Aug. 8 to its manufacturing partners. Evaluation editions and developer releases became available on Sept. 4.

Some IT shops may opt to use Microsoft's new storage features in servers equipped with Windows Server 2012 rather than purchase WSS 2012-based hardware products. Mike Leone, a lab analyst/engineer at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. in Milford, Mass., said the Windows Sever features enhancements -- especially Storage Spaces and enhancements to the SMB protocol -- will allow customers to use enterprise-class storage technology with industry-standard servers and direct-attached storage.

"It's inexpensive, it's easy, and you don't have to be a SAN expert to deploy and configure it," Leone said via an email.

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