Microsoft does NAS with Windows Storage Server 2003

Many organizations have embraced NAS storage devices in order to save on hardware and avoid costs associated with operating systems such as Windows. But now, Microsoft is moving into the NAS arena with its Windows Storage Server 2003. Take a look.

Microsoft has recently released a Network Attached Storage (NAS) solution based on Windows Server 2003. This solution, called Windows Storage Server 2003, does not include a server from Microsoft but requires a partnership with a hardware OEM. I am going to explain what we can expect from Windows Storage Server 2003.

NAS primer
At its simplest, NAS is designed to be a very low cost server that's dedicated to storing data and serving files. Many NAS servers are little more than commodity systems filled with hard drives, a system board, and a network card. Often, there isn't even a place to plug a keyboard, mouse, or monitor into a NAS box (although there are exceptions).

The basic idea behind a NAS server is that once you plug it into your network, it will be ready to go in a few easy steps. Network administrators can usually do the configuration through a Web interface. The server's hard drives can be formatted with the NTFS file system, and administrators can manage files and folders on the NAS system just as they would on any other Windows server.

Of course, this is just a generic explanation of how a low-budget NAS server works. Now, let's take a look at Microsoft's NAS solution, which is designed to be a high performance NAS.

Windows Storage Server 2003
Like any other NAS server, Windows Storage Server 2003 is first and foremost a file server. The idea is that the NAS server will be running a copy of Windows Server 2003, but the software will have been optimized for the sole purpose of acting as a file server. This means that a lot of unnecessary services have been eliminated and that other services have probably been reprioritized. The server also has heterogeneous file systems.

The Windows memory model has also been redesigned. A normal 32-bit Windows 2003 Server is limited to either 4 GB or 64 GB of memory, depending on the version of the server operating system and on the type of processor being used in the server. However, Windows Storage Server 2003 relies on a 64-bit processor and can accommodate 64 GB or more of memory.

Microsoft has also extended the virtual memory model. Windows Storage Server 2003 supports up to 16 terabytes of flat virtual memory space.

Although Windows Storage Server 2003 is aimed at running on a 64-bit Itanium processor, compatibility isn't an issue. It also integrates transparently with existing 64-bit and 32-bit servers and workstations. Windows Storage Server 2003 also uses the standard Windows interface, so administrators don't have to worry about having to learn a new product. If you know how to use Windows Server 2003, you should be able to use Windows Storage Server 2003. You'll probably just have to learn a few new NAS-specific features.

Although storage is Windows Storage Server 2003's main function, don't expect the server to be a simple collection of hard drives. Windows Server 2003 has been designed to be a high performance solution that is both scalable and available.

The scalability aspect comes into play in a couple of different ways. First, the server will offer huge quantities of disk space. This allows administrators to consolidate multiple general purpose file servers into a single NAS server. This greatly reduces the cost to an organization because consolidating servers reduces the administrative burden and also reduces software license requirements.

Windows Storage Server 2003 is also designed to be scalable in that it can be integrated with your existing storage area network (SAN) environment. It is also possible to use multiple Windows Storage Servers on your network as a way of providing additional storage and/or redundancy.

Another one of the key features to Windows Storage Server 2003 is that it is designed to make your network more reliable. Earlier, I mentioned that the server is optimized for an Itanium processor. One of the key Itanium features is error detection and prediction. This feature is fully supported by Windows 2003. In fact, any hardware error, whether it's correctable or not, is automatically logged to the Windows event log. This allows you to more easily determine the cause of server problems that may occur.

Another way that the server is designed to be reliable is in the way it manages its hard disk. Like most other NAS products, the Microsoft Storage Server 2003 is designed to use a hot swap RAID array. By doing so, the server can keep running even if a hard disk fails. In the event of a hard disk failure, the administrator can replace the dead hard disk without powering off the server.

Finally, Windows Storage Server 2003 is also designed to assist in both the backup and the replication of critical data. From a replication standpoint, the Microsoft NAS server can be configured to act as a replica within an existing Distributed File System (DFS). This means that if the server that's storing the original copy of the data were to go down, users can be automatically redirected to a copy on the NAS server. When the failed server comes back up, changes to the data that have occurred since the time of the failure can be synchronized between the servers.

I mentioned that the NAS server can also assist with backups. The idea here is that some systems, such as SQL Server and Exchange, can only be backed up with special software, unless they are taken offline prior to the backup. However, using the NAS server and one of several third-party backup solutions, you can make periodic snap-shot backups of these servers throughout the day.

Bottom line
Frequently, one of the primary reasons that companies use NAS is because of cost. Not only do NAS servers usually provide a lot of hard disk space at a very low hardware cost, but they don't typically use an operating system such as Windows. As such, companies can save the expense of server operating system licenses and the expense of client access licenses. However, these concerns have mostly been alleviated with Windows Storage Server 2003.

Microsoft has not released a price for the Windows Storage Server 2003 product because the product is only available from various OEMs as part of a complete NAS solution. If this sounds a little strange, remember that this is an entire server, not just a software package (similar to the way in which Microsoft does not sell Windows CE separately).

I have looked at some of the OEMs that are offering Microsoft's NAS solutions. The prices that I have encountered range from about $1,000 on the low end to around $18,000 on the high end. The price includes both hardware and software, and no special client access licenses are required. From Microsoft's Web site, you can access a link to the OEMs offering NAS solutions based on Windows Storage Server 2003.

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