Understand Windows 2000 storage features

Learn about Windows 2000s storage features and improvements over Windows NT 4.0

By Jerry Honeycutt

Microsoft got Windows NT 4.0 mostly right. It's a more-than-capable network operating system and still a staple in many corporations. But one of the big knocks against NT is its storage features. When it comes to enterprise-level availability and reliability, NT falls a bit short. Added to these woes are the need to reboot to effect most file system changes and a backup facility that's a well-known bit bucket. Companies have grappled with these limitations and have often been forced to turn to vendors peddling third-party solutions to fill these gaps in NT.

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With Windows 2000, Microsoft set out to shake NT's lack of respect in the storage category with big-time features such as dynamic volume management, which lets administrators manage network disks without rebooting the server. Self-describing disks ensure that each volume's metadata is on the disk with the volume, thus improving reliability. These and a host of other improvements make Windows 2000's storage features truly enterprise worthy.

Many of Windows 2000's storage enhancements—such as Encrypting File System (EFS) and distributed link tracking—are desktop-oriented for users of the Professional version of the OS. But we'll set our sights on the eight key server storage features in Windows 2000.

New file system, dynamic volumes
Windows 2000 boasts a brand-new version of the NT file system—NTFS 5—and the ability to manage storage without interrupting operations.

#1: NTFS 5
NTFS 5 provides enhanced security, improved compression, and better performance. The most notable improvement to NTFS may be invisible to most users, but it enables high visibility features with reparse points. Reparse points allow Microsoft and independent software vendors (ISVs) to extend the operating system's storage features by plugging custom code into the file system. Encrypting File System, Single Instance Store, and Volume Mount Points all use reparse points to extend the NTFS file system. Take note that some of these features won't work with NT because even with the latest NT service pack installed, the older NOS doesn't support reparse points. For example, NT won't be able to read encrypted files.

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#2: Dynamic volume management
Windows 2000's most significant storage enhancement is dynamic volume management (DVM). DVM lets you manage disks—extend, mirror, repair, and so forth—without interrupting the current operations. It also introduces the concept of a dynamic disk. Basic disks are those you might create with a utility such as FDisk; they are four volumes that include a primary partition and an extended partition with up to three logical drives. Dynamic disks contain dynamic volumes without any primary or secondary partitions. This allows significant latitude for managing volumes online, but you should be aware of the potential for compatibility problems. For example, Symantec Ghost, a popular utility for remotely managing networked PCs, cannot clone dynamic disks, thus defeating one of the program's key tools. If you use Ghost as a deployment tool to set up your networked PCs, you're limited to using dynamic disks only on your Windows 2000 servers (as Microsoft intended). Also, only Windows 2000 can read dynamic disks, so if you ever choose to take the conversion route, know that it's strictly a one-way street.

Slice and dice disk space
Windows 2000 offers better storage management than NT and adds some new storage options.

#3: Disk Management
Disk Management is essentially the control center for managing Windows 2000 disks. The utility is a Microsoft Management Console (MMC) snap-in module that improves on NT's administration services and adds support for new Windows 2000 storage features such as dynamic volumes. Microsoft partnered with Veritas Software to develop the Disk Management snap-in. The Microsoft version may fill your needs, but if you find that it falls short in any areas, you may want to consider the full commercial version, Veritas Volume Manager for Windows 2000. You can find Disk Management in the Computer Management console. From the Start menu, select Programs | Administrative Tools | Computer Management and then click Disk Management in the Storage node.

#4: Remote Storage
Remote Storage is Microsoft's implementation of a hierarchical storage management (HSM) system that can effectively increase server disk space by moving seldom-used files to offline storage. On a per-megabyte basis, it costs more to store files on hard disks than on other media, so moving files that aren't frequently used to offline—or remote—storage can save money. It can also help ensure that a certain amount of free space is always available on network disks. With Remote Storage, files can be moved automatically based on age and size thresholds that you set. Users may be none the wiser, as they still see the files listed in Windows Explorer as if they were still online. The files are accessible too, although there is a lag as a requested file is loaded back to live storage. When used with jukeboxes or autoloaders, Remote Storage can be completely automated. Remote Storage isn't installed by default, so you must add the component using the Add/Remove Programs applet. To adjust the Remote Storage settings, select Start | Programs | Administrative Tools | Remote Storage.

#5: Quota Management
Windows 2000 allows you to set disk quotas for your network users to manage the amount of disk space they can use. You establish two controls: the amount of space available to a user and what happens when an allotment is exceeded. Users receive a warning before what Microsoft calls a hard quota is enforced. The quota utility monitors usage on NTFS 5 disks according to your criteria, which can be applied to individual users or to groups. Windows 2000 supports quotas on a per-volume—not per-share—basis, which may limit its usefulness in some environments. Quota Management is built in to the operating system, so there's no additional software to install. To control disk quotas, select Properties from any network drive's shortcut menu and click the Quota tab.

Defrag lags, and backup gets a boost
A defrag utility is included with Windows 2000, but its enterprise value is dubious. However, Win2K’s backup utility is much better, and the Distributed File System makes it easy to access files on the network.

#6: Disk Defragmenter
Just like its predecessor, Windows 2000 fragments files, which can result in a nasty little performance hit. With NT, your only recourse was a third-party defrag utility, but Windows 2000 includes Disk Defragmenter, a lightweight version of Executive Software's Diskeeper. But the Windows 2000 edition has a couple of key limitations: You can't schedule defragging, and you can't use it remotely. These shortcomings make Disk Defragmenter more of a desktop tool than a practical enterprise solution. Diskeeper, however, addresses these issues, and given the dramatic impact on performance that fragmented disks can incur, is well worth a look. To run Disk Defragmenter, select Properties from any drive's shortcut menu, click the Tools tab, and then click Defragment Now.

#7: Backup
Microsoft tapped Veritas again for its Windows 2000 Backup app, a lightweight version of Veritas' Backup Exec. Not only is Backup easier to use than it was in NT, it's more reliable and supports new features such as Remote Storage, Active Directory, and the Encrypting File System. Wizard-aided operations make it easy to schedule backups without having to remember complex command-line options, so you're less likely to be caught with your tapes down. The one beef we have with Backup now is that rotating media becomes drudgery when compared to more straightforward utilities. To access Backup, select Start | Programs | Accessories | System Tools | Backup.

#8: Distributed File System (DFS)
DFS is a true enterprise feature that enables unfettered access to files. It creates a single directory tree that can include directories across numerous file servers, making it easier for users to find files without knowing their precise locations. DFS also supports file replication services (FRS), allowing administrators to create duplicate directories that are automatically synced, thus ensuring access to files even when one server hosting the files is unavailable. To configure DFS, select Start | Programs | Administrative Tools | Distributed File System.

Does eight add up for enterprises?
Today’s enterprise data centers run 24/7, so shutting down file servers to work with storage is not business as usual—it's a disaster. Microsoft successfully addresses enterprise readiness with Windows 2000, despite a lapse or two (most notably with its weak disk-defragging features). So although you may still need to augment Microsoft's storage management toolkit with a third-party app or two, you're not likely to need wholesale replacements.

Dynamic volume management and Remote Storage are perhaps the two biggest boons for storage administration that Windows 2000 boasts. The first provides round-the-clock availability by enabling online disk management, and the second reduces costs and streamlines storage by moving space-hogging files from expensive hard disks to inexpensive remote storage.

Other Windows 2000 storage management features may be less remarkable, but taken as a whole, represent a significant step up from NT 4.0. The entire package isn't perfect, but it certainly adds up to an enterprise-class array of storage options.

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