Microsoft Keeps Storage Users In Suspense
Windows Server 2008 will be formally introduced this week amid great fanfare and much talk of virtualization and modularity. But what will it have to offer storage professionals?
Disappointingly, there has been no official announcement of a Storage Server 2008 product analogous to Storage Server 2003 but there have been strong hints that some such offering will become available toward the end of the year.
But that's not to say there's nothing to get excited about, storage-wise, in Server 2008. Microsoft has been whipping up enthusiasm in a number of storage-related areas, including failover clustering, disk management, connectivity and server backup.
Introducing new storage features in the 2008 release follows a trend: Microsoft has done so with every release of its server product over the last ten or so years. It introduced clustering as an option pack way back in NT Server, and improved clustering capabilities and load balancing using SCSI port connectivity to storage fabrics in Server 2000.
By 2003, clustering became more sophisticated with the introduction of features like Volume Shadow Copy Services, Virtual Disk Service, MPIO, and SAN Boot, and the 2003 R2 release included capabilities for Storage Manager for SAN (SMfS), VDS 1.1, PCI RAID, Fibre Channel, file blocking and remote boot. And, of course, Windows Storage Server was introduced as an OEM product.
So, what's new in Server 2008?
Failover clustering is Server 2008's name for Microsoft Cluster Service, or Wolfpack, as it was codenamed. It's now far easier to set up a cluster in 2008, thanks to a number of new features, including the new integrated configuration validation tools that run a battery of tests on a collection of servers that you intend to run as a cluster. The tests look at hotfixes, service packs, network performance and a host of other factors, ultimately producing a "certificate of supportability," which effectively says that the systems as they are configured should work as nodes in a cluster. The tool can also be used as a diagnostic tool to troubleshoot cluster nodes.
The actual process of creating a cluster has also been significantly simplified so that it can now be completed in a handful of mouse clicks or scripted for automated deployments. Cluster configurations can also be migrated from one Server 2008 cluster to another, although it should be noted that there is no way to migrate from a 2003-based cluster to a 2008-based one.
With clusters up and running, cluster management should be easier, thanks to the introduction of a cluster MMC (Microsoft Management Console) snap-in a feature notable by its absence in Server 2003. Changes have also been made to the way geographically remote nodes in a cluster can be linked so that it is now possible to have nodes across a common cluster on different subnets, which, along with the new capability of changing heartbeat timeouts, effectively means that there are now no cluster node distance limitations.
There are a number of significant improvements that have been made in disk management in Server 2008. For example, in Server 2003 it was possible to extend a volume, but in 2008 it is also possible to shrink one (on compatible hardware). And previously, it was necessary to use utilities like Diskpar and Diskpart to correct offset alignment of volumes, but 2008 aligns volumes by default, cutting out a great deal of management work.
Another new feature that has been introduced is SAN policy, which controls the default volume mount behaviour of any device when it is brought online in a storage fabric. Essentially, the device's bus type is detected automatically and the device itself is put in online, offline or offline shared mode, as appropriate.
One of the most significant changes in Server 2008 as far as storage is concerned is connectivity, and specifically the introduction of Server Message Block (SMB) 2.0 protocol. Microsoft introduced SMB 2.0 with Vista, and in Server 2008-Vista environments it should offer a number of very real benefits.
Firstly, the protocol is vastly more scalable than earlier versions, allowing more open files and shares on a given server. The chattiness of the protocol has also been reduced using packet compounding to relieve network congestion, and the protocol supports "resume" for file transfers that are interrupted, so they don't need to start again from the beginning. And according to Microsoft, the speed benefits of the new protocol will be quite dramatic. Using SMB, a 1GB file on a 1Gbps LAN link will transfer at about 16MB/s, compared to a speed of about 72MB/s achievable using Server 2008 and Vista with SMB 2.0.
Server 2008 has a new backup capability built in to the operating system (installed as an option), which takes advantage of VSS to make backup images. Microsoft says it increases the granularity of the backup and restore operations compared to what was previously available. It's important to note that the backup functionality is only for the server itself it can't do cross-server backups of any type for that you'll have to use alternative solutions like Microsoft's Data Protection Manager 2007.
The new backup feature enables you to back up to local connected storage such as internal and external disks, SMB shares and optical media, but tape-based backup operations are no longer supported. There's also a limit of 2 terabytes on volumes to be backed up. Notice that NTBackup is now gone although Microsoft is offering a downloadable utility which enables NTBackups created on XP and Server 2003 to be restored, but there is no write capability.
One final tool in Server 2008 worth mentioning is Storage Explorer. Implemented as an MMC snap-in, Storage Explorer communicates directly with iSNS servers to provide a tree structure view of all the components of a SAN including fabrics, platforms and storage devices right down to the LUN level. The tool also provides access to the TCP/IP management interfaces of individual storage devices from the Storage Explorer GUI, and ultimately it's Microsoft's intention to offer storage provisioning across various storage arrays using the Storage Explorer interface, the company says.
That's just a brief overview of what's in Server 2008 for storage professionals; there are more features and capabilities that haven't been discussed. But that just goes to show how much of potential interest to storage professionals there really is.