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Storage features lurking in Windows Server 2008

Although Windows Server 2008 isn't focused on storage the way Windows Server 2003 was, the newest version of Windows will still play a major role in the storage landscape.

Although Windows Server 2008 isn't feature-rich for storage, the latest version of the Windows operating system includes Hyper-V and other enhancements that will help benefit storage performance in the long run.

Unlike Windows Server 2003, which represented a major push for storage from Microsoft, Windows Server 2008 is more about fine-tuning and addressing a few glaring weaknesses in the way previous versions of Windows handled storage.

"Windows Server 2008 isn't really focused on storage, but there are a few things that are interesting," says Stephen Foskett, IT consultant Contoural Inc.'s director of data practice. Those include:

  • The addition of symbolic links to Server Message Block, also known as CIFS, in Server Message Block 2.0. Symbolic links, a feature that Microsoft borrowed from Unix, support multiple Server Message Block commands in one network packet to reduce network overhead in NAS. Microsoft also added support for symbolic links in the operating system with Windows Server 2008.

  • The ability to shrink volumes on the fly without stopping the server.

  • Enhancements to BitLocker drive encryption, which allow users to encrypt contents of a multiple server volumes.

  • Enhancements to Volume Shadow Copy Services, including a DiskShadow utility to create and manage shadow copies.

  • Storage Explorer, an MMC snap-in that shows all the Fibre Channel switches in a storage fabric and what is connected to each switch port.

  • Microsoft Multipath I/O with drivers for Fibre Channel and iSCSI, and an iSCSI initiator are built into the operating system.
Don't forget Hyper-V, which is Microsoft's long-awaited answer to VMware's ESX server virtualization product. Hyper-V will no doubt become more of a storage tool as it matures and will rely on its storage support to compete with VMware down the road.

Hyper-V supports direct-attached storage and SAN storage although it is probably not as robust out of the box as VMware, which pumped up its storage capabilities over the past two years with enhancements to VMFS changing the way it handles VMDK files and the addition of Storage VMotion for migrating data on SANs.

"Hyper-V completely changes the storage paradigm for Windows," Foskett says. "It introduces a whole new world of storage excitement just like VMware did with VMFS and VMDK files."

Still, storage administrators will likely temper that excitement until they get a better look at Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V.

"We're running Windows 2008 and are working to see what new 2008 features we will be able to benefit from," says David Stevens, senior systems consultant for computing services at Carnegie Mellon University. "We are an ESX shop so we most likely won't be using Hyper-V unless the Windows group decides to go off on their own and try it out."

Windows Server 2008 will undoubtedly have an effect on other vendors' storage products, although some of these may take months to happen. Windows Storage Server 2008, an update to the product that Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others build NAS systems around, isn't even in beta yet. When Windows Storage Server 2008 is released, it will only be to OEMs and not end users. It's unlikely that Windows Storage Server 2008 systems will be available before 2009.

Windows Server 2008 will also play a role in storage for remote offices. Microsoft and Cisco have revealed plans to embed Windows Server 2008 services, such as Active Directory, Domain Name System, DHCP and print services in Cisco's WAAS appliances. The partnership is expected to produce an integrated product in August, and analysts say they expect Microsoft to make similar deals with Riverbed and other WAFS vendors.

However, the new features in Windows Server 2008 may hurt Microsoft's relationships will some storage vendors. Features, such as Volume Shadow Copy Services, could commoditize the Windows integration that backup software vendors have built into their products. Backup vendors are expected to support Windows Server Backup -- a backup tool in Windows Server 2008 -- but won't support managing them in the same repository as their own backup applications.

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