Exchange and Windows Storage Server, Together at Last

Last week, I promised to talk about Exchange Server and the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) format this week, but an announcement that Microsoft made last week changed that plan. At Storage Networking World (SNW) Spring 2004, Microsoft pulled the wraps off a significant new item: a Microsoft Windows Storage Server 2003 feature pack that will let Windows Storage Server support Exchange Server 2003.

In case you aren't familiar with Windows Storage Server, it's a special-purpose Windows server version designed to power Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices. Dell, EMC, Fujitsu, Gateway, HP, and Iomega (among others) sell Windows Storage Server-based systems (formerly known as Windows Powered NAS devices) in various configurations. These servers aren't for general-purpose computing; for example, you can't use them to run Exchange, Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server, or Microsoft SQL Server. However, you can seamlessly integrate Windows Storage Server systems into your network as members of an Active Directory (AD) domain, and the product includes a nifty Web-based administration tool that lets you remotely configure and control Windows Storage Server-based devices.

A single Windows Storage Server system can easily handle the load of several older servers, and Microsoft is positioning Windows Storage Server as a way to consolidate data from multiple Windows NT 4.0 file servers. Server consolidation has been a big focus for Exchange, too, and the new Exchange-support technology is the result of the efforts of the company's Enterprise Storage Division and Exchange Division.

Here's the setup: You install a Windows Storage Server box on your network and connect it (preferably through Gigabit Ethernet) directly to your Exchange 2003 server. On the storage server, you install the feature pack, which in turn installs various components, including extensions to the Web administration tool. The pack also installs a share that contains additional components that you'll need to install on the Exchange server. These components consist of two tools (one GUI, one command-line) for safely moving Exchange databases to the storage server, plus a service that remaps requests for database data to the storage server.

Microsoft is aiming the feature pack squarely at small and midsized businesses. With the right configuration of storage hardware, you can support as many as 1500 Exchange users on two Exchange servers. Because Windows Storage Server devices typically support hardware RAID (and, often, hot-swappable disks), they might deliver better redundancy and performance than existing dedicated Direct Attached Storage (DAS) servers. The pack's most intriguing benefit, though, is the potential for file-server and Exchange-data consolidation. For a small organization, consolidating several file servers and an Exchange Server 5.5 box or two onto one Windows Storage Server system and one Exchange 2003 server could be tempting. The notion becomes even more compelling when you consider that Windows Storage Server supports the Volume Shadow Copy Services (VSS)-based "Shadow Copies of Shared Folders" feature, which lets users independently retrieve earlier versions of their own documents. (Note, though, that Microsoft doesn't support the use of this feature to make shadow copies of Exchange volumes.)

Unfortunately, we'll have to wait to get more details about pricing and availability for the new feature pack. Although the product has been released to manufacturing and will be available from Windows Storage Server NAS hardware manufacturers, neither Microsoft nor vendors have given a firm date for the pack's final release. I expect to see more information--including technical, sizing, and performance numbers--from the Enterprise Storage Division in the near future.

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