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Microsoft touts high-end storage features for all

The software giant's availing of high-end features on the Windows storage platform has attracted one Singapore academic institution.

Having conquered majority share of the desktop market, Microsoft now wants a piece of the storage action too. Its strategy to do so is to make features previously available only on high-end storage devices accessible on mass storage hardware, said a senior storage executive from Microsoft.

Claude Lorenson, group product manager of Windows server marketing, told ZDNet Asia that with Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 (WSS 2003 R2), Microsoft is "bringing a new level of functionality to NAS (network attached storage) devices".

Microsoft launched the WSS 2003 R2 in Asia on May 24, with features such as Single-Instance Storage (SIS), an updated Distributed File System (DFS) and a fully-indexed search system.

"Everybody should be able to benefit from these features," he said, noting that Microsoft's Universal Distributed Storage (UDS) strategy is to allow users to buy industry-standard hardware with the Windows operating system, and have high-end storage functionalities such as SAN (storage area network) management, snapshots and data protection built into the platform.

These features are traditionally available on proprietary storage systems from vendors such as EMC and Network Appliance.

"We want to address the need of small, remote office users and [bring them] data center-class [functionalities]," said Lorenson. He added that while competitors rely on proprietary hardware to bring in the profit margins, Microsoft is "more of a volume player", targeting instead to generate revenues by growing its sales volumes.

To attract more users, he said, Microsoft has improved the performance of the Network File System (NFS) in WSS 2003 R2. Originally developed by Sun Microsystems, NFS--also commonly known as a distributed file system--is a protocol that allows a computer to access files over a network as easily as if they were on its local disks. It is commonly used in the Unix environment.

Microsoft later developed an equivalent protocol, called Common Internet File System (CIFS), for the Windows platform.

"In the past, our NFS performance was very average," Lorenson said. "Now, it's competitive [with other NAS systems]. And of course, our CIFS performance is the best in the Windows environment."

But in heterogeneous environments, the network traffic performance will depend on the kind of files that are frequently accessed, he said. For instance, people who need to access CAD/CAM files on NFS will see a drop in network traffic performance within a Windows environment, he said.

"If 75 percent of your traffic is on CIFS, then you're better off [running] on Windows. If 75 percent of your traffic is on NFS, then you're better off on a Unix device."

One educational institution in Singapore has found the new features in WSS 2003 R2 compelling enough to warrant a switch from its previous SAN system.

Seow Khee Wei, manager of networking and storage at the school of infocomm technology, Republic Polytechnic, told ZDNet Asia he was looking specifically at WSS 2003 R2's indexing, file search and single-instance storage features when he evaluated the product. The poly has 3,700 students and 400 staff.

Seow was unable to provide specific details about the benefits the academic institution has derived from using WSS 2003 R2 thus far, because the polytechnic is only expected to begin using the new features in five months' time.

The IP storage push
Microsoft is also concentrating its efforts on wooing customers at the low-end, and it is narrowing its focus on iSCSI (Internet Small Computing System Interface). The Internet Protocol-based storage networking standard is used to transmit SCSI commands, or data, over IP-based Ethernet networks.

By August, Microsoft will make available an iSCSI target to its OEM (original equipment manufacturer) hardware partners, which include Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, NEC, Germany's Fujitsu-Siemens, France's Bull, as well as local OEMs in China.

The WinTarget technology, which Microsoft acquired from String Bean Software in March, is an iSCSI target technology will be offered as a feature pack of Windows Storage Server 2003 R2, available with Standard Edition or Enterprise Edition of Windows Storage Server 2003 R2. This new iSCSI software target will be integrated with hardware from OEM partners.

Lorenson admitted that enterprise users will get better performance if they bought a high-end hardware iSCSi target directly from a vendor such as EMC. However, he pointed out that one benefit from using Microsoft's iSCSI software target is that many entry-level storage administrators are likely to be already "familiar with the Windows management schema".

Windows currently runs on 54 percent of NAS devices in the price band above US$500 globally, he said.

The cost of a NAS box running WSS 2003 R2, however, can scale from US$500 to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the requirements of the user, Lorenson added. For example, the single-instance storage functionality is typically not needed on a NAS device with four processors and 100GB of data. "But for an eight-processor device with 5 terabytes of data--that's a different a story," he said.