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Microsoft's progress in the storage arena may not be as certain as time and tide, but it may be as inevitable as the drift of high-end technology to the mainstream, and that's pretty close.
Four years ago, Microsoft made clear its interest in storage with the launch of its Enterprise Storage Division. Those four years have seen the company make significant gains in NAS, introduce SAN management to the Windows platform, and aggressively support and promote iSCSI SANs.
Microsoft's latest storage plays include Windows Server 2003 R2, Windows Storage Server R2, and Data Protection Manager (DPM), all rolled out in 2005, and all poised to bring the company further into the storage space, both in the mid-market and at the enterprise level. It's only natural to wonder where all this is leading. Microsoft has published statements describing its vision in storage, but declined to be interviewed specifically for this story.
New storage-related features in Windows Server 2003 R2, which shipped Feb. 1, include quota management, improved WAN support and basic SAN management software. The R2 release of Windows Storage Server 2003, an OEM storage platform, brings in performance improvements and new indexing features.
Microsoft's target has always been the high-volume middle of the market, and that hasn't changed with its latest offerings.
"They find the market too small to just go after the very largest installations," says Peter Pawlak, lead analyst for server applications at Directions on Microsoft. Although the enterprise is an important constituency, Pawlak says, Microsoft strives to "make it cheap enough and simple enough to get into midrange systems, where there is a lot of volume."
"There's very much a mid-market focus to the platform specific to storage today," agrees Brad O'Neill, senior analyst and consultant at the Taneja Group. O'Neill also sees a drive to the high-end: "Is Microsoft going to be content with just the mid-market? They've always had their eyes set on various enterprise markets within storage."
And, with the improved capabilities of its latest server OS, Microsoft continues its march toward those markets. Says O'Neill, "Compared to prior releases of Windows Server and Windows Storage Server, the R2 release goes a lot further than Microsoft ever has in starting to approach truly enterprise-ready."
Despite its relatively recent entry into the field, Microsoft claims a majority market share for Windows Storage Server 2003 in NAS deployments between $500 and $100,000. Clearly, the low end of the NAS market belongs to Microsoft and its OEMs.
The R2 releases of Windows Server 2003 and Windows Storage Server 2003 bring more features to bear. The first of these is simply better performance, in the form of file serving optimizations and improved NFS performance. Then there is better branch office support, brought about by DFS enhancements, including namespace virtualization across the WAN and fast server replication using remote differential compression.
Windows Server 2003 R2 also includes File Server Resource Manager (FSRM), a tool that adds user quota management and storage reporting.
O'Neill sees these features as part of a convincing enterprise NAS storage strategy. "All of these things, as you start to look at them, start to point towards Microsoft getting much more serious about the mid-range enterprise," he says.
In the next year or two, says O'Neill, the Microsoft platform may be ready to take on the high-end competition. "When I look at that feature list, and think about the competitive landscape, Microsoft can actually go head-to-head ... against the tier one NAS players at the very edges of those markets in 2006-2007."
By the second half of 2007, he says, "You're going to see a lot more Windows platforms trying to compete with NetApp."
SAN: The Next Wave
Windows Server 2003 R2 includes new SAN management capabilities, but these are rudimentary. Storage Manager for SANs (SMfS) allows basic management of devices through Microsoft's Virtual Disk Service (VDS), meaning that the tool can be used in a heterogeneous environment as long as each device supports VDS.
Microsoft's aim here is not to compete in the high-end SAN management space, but to make SAN a more accessible technology to make SANs more approachable to the middle of the market. SMfS, says O'Neill, is "Definitely focused on entry SANs, iSCSI SANs and users that have small deployments."
But no one expects that SMfS is the end of the SAN story. One needs only to review Microsoft's impressive gains in the NAS market to get a feel for how Microsoft's SAN offerings will progress. Says O'Neill: "If you look at their NAS strategy, we should assume the exact same thing is what they are going to try to do in SAN. They're just maybe three years behind."
Microsoft's initial data protection offering is not primarily an enterprise product, either. DPM is a backup solution that offers near-continuous data protection based on snapshots. While this won't do for mission-critical enterprise applications, it's a good fit for SMBs looking to move from tape to faster, more automated disk-to-disk backup.
"It's classic Microsoft," says O'Neill of DPM's introduction and its likely trajectory, again the same path taken by the company's NAS software. Microsoft introduces a low-cost solution that brings capabilities to the mid-market that weren't there before. Then, says O'Neill, it works up from there: "They come out with subsequent two-dot, three-dot releases that eventually make it a de facto standard for a huge chunk of the marketplace."
For its part, Microsoft has made no secret of its storage vision. In a statement on Microsoft's Website, Bob Muglia, Microsoft senior vice president for the Windows Server Group, states it plainly:
"Our long-term vision is to provide customers with Windows-based storage solutions that are available on industry-standard hardware from multiple partners. We want to utilize the latest storage technology while remaining cost-effective, and offer solutions that work with the broad range of devices, PCs and servers that our customers use."This sounds like a heterogeneous storage environment made out of low-cost, off-the-shelf hardware. Analysts agree that the company is likely to focus, at least in the near term, less on broad interoperability and more on market penetration.
"I don't think we should expect them to totally embrace a Symantec-style, heterogeneous love of all hosts," says O'Neill. Microsoft will continue to work in a multi-vendor environment on its own terms, along the lines of its initial reliance on VDS for SAN management.
Pawlak says Microsoft will support storage management standards, but that, at least at the lower end of the market, it's not waiting for them. "Because of Microsoft's position, in terms of market share, in terms of their partner relationships, I don't believe that Microsoft needs to do that," says Pawlak.
Down the road, O'Neill sees further movement into storage, but always in service of the core OS. "They are going to be most concerned about preserving that aircraft carrier, which is the Windows server platform," he says. And O'Neill expects further development of enterprise capability. "They are going to continue to add significant levels of functionality that are eventually going to be applicable to enterprise environments."
As Microsoft's success in low-cost NAS demonstrates, lowering storage costs will help the company expand the market downward. O'Neill says this may shake things up a bit, saying he expects Microsoft to be "majorly disruptive on price, particularly in the SMB space."
But really making its mark in enterprise storage won't be so easy for Microsoft, where the playing field is wide, and where software is more dispersed. Says O'Neill: "To become a toe-to-toe competitor against these tier one storage players will require them to become a lot more mature about how they embrace the truly heterogeneous environments that are out there. Because a lot of the intelligence in storage software exists off of that server platform."
Microsoft has made a further commitment to the future in strong support of virtualization on its server platform. And that, according to Pawlak, may accelerate Microsoft's interest in network storage. "If you are able to store [a virtual server file] on centralized storage, then clustering scenarios and rapid reallocation of those virtual machines from one physical server to another become easy. And I think that's one of the reasons that Microsoft sees that the days of DAS (on the server) are coming to an end."
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