How Is a File Server Like a Racecar?

Microsoft says, "Think specialization and efficiency in Windows Storage Server 2003 R2"

Today, Microsoft has more than 53 percent of the world's NAS market. Windows Storage Server 2003 (WSS 2003), Microsoft's NAS product, is a version of Windows Server 2003 that's stripped of some features unrelated to storage and optimized for file serving. You can purchase WSS 2003 only as a preconfigured package on third-party OEM hardware, in appliance or rack-mounted form. As a version of Windows 2003, WSS delivered new features and functionality with the recent Release 2 (R2) of the OS, so we asked readers what they want Microsoft to explain about WSS 2003 R2.

Our survey revealed that readers wonder why they should purchase WSS instead of just using Windows Server. The technical pain points the survey uncovered revolve around the cost of storing large numbers of duplicate files; backup and recovery; quota management; and remote printer management. When I interviewed representatives of Microsoft's Storage Server team about these findings, they emphasized that they believe the data validates the features that they built into R2. (For details about WSS 2003 R2, see Need to Know, "Microsoft Storage Product Plans," March 2005, InstantDoc ID 49172.)

Why Pay for a Storage Server SKU?
"What need does this product serve?" asked one candid reader. "The way I've read the documentation, the same thing can be done with Windows 2003 if configured the same as Storage Server. So why pay for this product when it appears to have all the same features as Windows 2003?"

Windows Server Group Product Manager Radhesh Balakrishnan defended his product, explaining that when you purchase a WSS solution from an OEM, "What you're paying for is a combination of preconfigured hardware and software. All you do is open the box, power it up, and connect it to the network."

Radhesh likened the difference between the underlying OS and WSS to comparing a street vehicle and an Indianapolis 500 car. "If you're designing a racecar, you know that its purpose is to participate in races, so you can afford to remove a few things and add a few things."

"For example," interjected Storage Group Product Manager Claude Lorenson, "an Indy car only goes to the left, so the designers can twist the suspension" to support that specialization. "But you could not do that with a regular car."

Radhesh continued, "90 percent of an Indy car is built on the same chassis" as a street vehicle, just as WSS is built on Windows Server, "but we do some tweaking such as Single Instance Storage (SIS)—things that we can do because we know that it's going to be a racecar."

Claude added, "Another differentiation point: I would say it's impossible today to buy a regular server with, say, 30TB of storage attached to it, but you can buy a storage server with that kind of storage attachable to it. That has nothing to do with the software—it's all the extra hardware you're getting. Also, index-based search will be in Storage Server R2 only."

"In fact," Radhesh agreed, "if you were to buy commodity hardware and build a device with the same capabilities that WSS has, the hardware and software combination would cost you more because of the effort involved."

Let's look at the survey results and how they align with those racecar features.

Reducing Storage of Duplicate Files
Of the 346 survey respondents, 48.3 percent stated that 10 to 24 percent of the files on their file servers were duplicates; 36 percent reported 1 to 9 percent duplication; and 10.7 percent reported 25 to 49 percent duplication. These numbers illustrate the potential to make better use of storage capacity by eliminating redundant storage of files. Microsoft's solution is to include SIS in WSS 2003 R2. (SIS is available with Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 only when combined with Microsoft Remote Installation Services—RIS.)

Claude explained, "With SIS, if two files have different names but the same content, WSS will only keep one version of that file. The information about each person using that file is still on the storage server, but the content is only kept once. Duplicate files are moved to the SIS Common Store and replaced with reparse points, saving storage capacity and simplifying backup by reducing the duplicate files you need to back up."

For example, Radhesh continued, "Let's say that 50 of us work in a small organization. The big boss decides to explain the next wave of something and sends a memo. Everyone gets a copy, and we each save the file in our home directory, storing 50 copies of the same memo. WSS recognizes—in the background, without any user input—that these 50 copies are identical. Regardless of the name I saved it under, WSS just keeps one copy. But WSS keeps the ACL, or security information, separately. If some of those 50 people have the rights to edit the memo and others just have the rights to read it, WSS preserves those rights while maintaining one copy of the content. You don't have to keep adding servers just because people are saving multiple copies of the same thing."

Claude pointed out, "Microsoft IT deployed SIS on their file servers for 2 years. They achieved an average space savings of 60 percent, or 14TB of disk."

Backup and Recovery and DFS
Backup and recovery was by far the biggest problem that survey respondents cited in connection with file servers in branch offices. Radhesh replied, "With Storage Server R2, DFSR \[Distributed File System Replication\] and DFS make sure that data's available in more than one location. A highly efficient algorithm replicates the data in multiple locations so that if the server fails, the data is available somewhere."

Regarding DFS, readers had three main requests:

  • make DFS restore easier
  • provide a better version of DFS
  • provide inherent support for multiple DFS roots.

Addressing the first request, Radhesh said, "Suppose a server in the branch office fails. DFS can fail over to another location, but we didn't have a good mechanism for failing back when the server comes back up. We addressed failback in SP1 and rolled it into R2. Now, WSS keeps polling so that if the original server comes back up, it fails back over without administrator intervention."

Concerning a better version of DFS, Radhesh admitted, "We got a lot of great feedback from customers on the UI, manageability, and the way we presented the concept of DFS. We've not only rewritten FRS \[File Replication Services\] to be replaced with DFSR, which uses Remote Differential Compression and sends only the differences, but we've also entirely rewritten the management console so it's intuitive. Even if you don't know what a DFS is, the UI gives you the basics and walks you through setting up a DFS. The visual representation of the DFS rules and how the physical servers are related is much more intuitive than the cryptic language that we used to have."

Requests for multiple DFS roots didn't surprise Radhesh, either. "Before R2, customers had to have Enterprise Edition to get multiple DFS root support. Storage Server R2 Standard Edition now includes multiple DFS root support."

Quota Management
Readers had four frequently cited requests for quota management functionality:

  1. "quotas at user level, and not at partition level"
  2. "quotas based on specific drives and not overall user ownership"
  3. "directory-based quota management"
  4. "user-based, group-based, and directory-based quotas—all three"

Claude responded, "We don't have an answer to all the requests, but we have a beginning. Server 2003 R2 and WSS 2003 R2 have a quota manager, File Server Resource Manager (FSRM). It does storage reporting and supports clustered servers, but not quotas at the user level. FSRM supports hard and soft quotas. Quotas don't integrate with AD \[Active Directory\] yet, but will in Longhorn. We have quotas for specific drives, and the quotas move with you. We don't have group-based quotas, but WSS comes with built-in templates, and you can create templates to provide quotas for people in, say, marketing or engineering."

Remote Printer Management
Only 19.6 percent of respondents said that managing remote printers from a central location was not at all important to them. Radhesh's comment on this finding was, "I don't think any IT professional will make a career out of print management, but it's a necessary evil. IT pros have to solve the problem."

As with the overall R2 release, remote or branch office features were the focus for WSS 2003 R2. Claude explained, "Remote print management for branch offices is really important, and we have a new remote print management console in R2, which is based on an MMC \[Microsoft Management Console\] snap-in. You can look at remote printers and print queues, cancel or put a printer online, push drivers, and manage printers from a central location."

The Need for a NAS-car
The racecar analogy is an interesting way to think about the specific nature of the features and functionality WSS 2003 R2 provides. But that analogy can go only so far. Certainly, a racecar isn't practical for most motorists, but every IT shop needs file servers, and storage is right up there with security as a top IT pain point. To decide whether this product would benefit you, you need to ask yourself, "What are the software/hardware bundle, specialized features, and preconfiguration worth to me in the long run?" If you're using WSS 2003 R2, I'd like to hear your answer to that question.

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