Windows and iSCSI SANs

On November 19, Microsoft announced that 14 leading Internet SCSI (iSCSI) storage vendors qualified for Microsoft's Designed for Windows Logo Program. (For more details about this announcement, see "News and Views"; to read the full press release, click the first URL at the end of the commentary.) These vendors demonstrated their compliance through a set of tests that Microsoft designed to ensure data integrity and compatibility with the Windows platform. "In some ways, the iSCSI compliance testing is more rigorous than the Fibre Channel storage testing. The overall nature of the test is quite involved. Vendors that take the time to do this work on the front end will have less support costs and follow-up concerns," said Claude Lorenson, product manager for Microsoft's Enterprise Storage Division.

How does this announcement fit into Microsoft's bigger storage plans? According to Lorenson, Microsoft's goal is to make Windows Server the easiest, best performing, best priced platform to which to attach Direct Attached Storage (DAS), Network Attached Storage (NAS), iSCSI Storage Area Networks (SANs), and Fibre Channel SAN devices. Before Microsoft can achieve this vision, however, the company needs to meet some technical and educational challenges.

First, Microsoft doesn't support Microsoft Exchange Server or Microsoft SQL Server on Windows Storage Server 2003-based NAS devices. Today, your storage choices for these applications are limited to DAS and SANs. For SQL Server, the problem stems from a licensing restriction, not a technical limitation. In fact, Microsoft will tell you how to configure a small SQL Server installation on a non-Windows NAS platform. For Exchange Server, Microsoft must address both technical and licensing problems. Microsoft has stated that it will support Exchange on NAS in the future but recommends that you use DAS or SANs until then.

Second, the average Windows administrator still perceives SANs as being too complex. Currently, storage administrators, not Windows administrators, install most SANs. This perceived complexity is a huge challenge and opportunity for Microsoft. If Microsoft can convince Windows NT Server administrators, who are in charge of millions of NT servers, to buy and install a SAN or NAS device, Microsoft will create a huge new market for networked storage.

What's required for typical Windows administrators to consider buying NAS or a SAN? First, Microsoft needs to convince them that DAS costs more to maintain and wastes valuable disk storage. Second, Microsoft needs to convince them that installing NAS is easy. I've written on both of these subjects numerous times, and I believe the available evidence supports those claims. Third, Microsoft and its partners need to make SANs affordable, standardized, and fast enough for most small-to-midsized businesses. Finally, and most important, SANs must be easy for a typical Windows administrator to install. Translation: The installation needs to run from a Windows Server wizard interface, take fewer than 2 hours, and be hassle-free.

The iSCSI vendor community is addressing the affordability factor by leveraging commodity networking and storage hardware to deliver multiterabyte solutions at half the cost of their Fibre Channel SAN counterparts. The $15,000 1TB-2TB SAN will soon be a reality.

Microsoft is attacking the simplicity factor through Virtual Disk Service (VDS), which is part of Windows Server 2003 and Windows Storage Server 2003. SAN vendors can write VDS providers that give Windows access to SAN configuration features. Recently, SAN vendors have begun demonstrating Windows-based wizards that let administrators create and maintain LUNs on their SANs. Ultimately, a Windows administrator will be able to completely manage a SAN device without leaving Windows, thus mitigating the learning curve and decreasing the intimidation factor of dealing with SANs.

In the October 27 issue of Storage UPDATE, I wrote about the San Francisco Networking Technologies Users Group (SFNTUG) teaching its members how to install and configure an iSCSI SAN and connect it to Windows 2003 servers. (To read that issue of Storage UPDATE, click the second URL below.) In one 6-hour class, the SFNTUG installed the SAN and configured it for clustering, tested failover, and configured the SAN to support Exchange Server 2003. The audience consisted of Windows Server administrators, not storage specialists, showing that early adopters are starting to consider making iSCSI SANs part of their IT infrastructure.

As more iSCSI vendors adopt the Designed for Windows logo, they're playing a part in a larger plan to make Windows the best platform for networked storage. If Microsoft and its storage partners can make SANs and NAS simple and cheap enough for the average Windows administrator, the market for networked storage will really take off.

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