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Sorting Through Microsoft's Storage Strategy

With all due apologies to Microsoft Senior Vice President Bob Muglia, who reacted with mock outrage last year when I told him about my complete disinterest in writing about storage, well, I have a complete disinterest in writing about storage. But that disinterest might be ebbing. In addition to what I think is a healthy move in the industry toward disk-based backup and recovery solutions, Microsoft has been pushing an alarming number of storage initiatives in the 2 years since Windows Server 2003 first shipped. It's a brave new world. And suddenly, storage is getting interesting again.

Alas, from a Microsoft watcher's perspective, storage is also getting complex. In addition to the core storage features found in Windows 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1)--including the Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS), the Distributed File System (DFS), disk quotas, and so on--Microsoft is working on several other storage-related products and services. These products include storage features in Windows 2003 Release 2 (R2, which I can't discuss quite yet), Windows Storage Server 2003, and the company's latest entry, Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM), which shipped in a public beta just last week. What are all these products and services, and how do they interact? And which customer segments do they target?

Obviously, the base storage services in Windows 2003 serve the smallest businesses to the largest enterprises. Small companies that use Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 gain access to better management tools, but the suite doesn't really advance the core storage features in Windows 2003 per se.

Windows 2003 and SBS 2003 are missing some essential storage technologies, but Microsoft is now supplying those features--or will do so soon--with Windows Storage Server 2003 and DPM. Windows Storage Server is a dedicated file and print server that lets you leverage your Windows knowledge and Windows 2003 functionality with appliances and rack-mounted storage solutions. The idea is that a storage server can plug into your existing infrastructure easily, regardless of the size.

Microsoft's newest storage technology, DPM, just recently debuted in public beta form. I spoke with DPM Technical Product Manager Christopher Whyte and Windows Server Technical Product Manager Ward Ralston about DPM last week, and that conversation alleviated some of my fears about the product. You see, DPM is a hard drive-based backup and restore solution, and I was curious why Microsoft wasn't adding this functionality to the base OS. Now that I've researched DPM, I can see that the technology has a lot more going on than I had previously thought. But the impending release of DPM does raise questions: Why is the backup utility in Windows 2003 so woefully inadequate? And can't a subset of DPM find its way into the core Windows Server product?

DPM--formerly known as Data Protection Server (DPS)--fills a glaring need. Today, most enterprise-class backup solutions are tape-based. Tape backups feature a set of glaringly obvious problems. First, they're notoriously slow and unreliable. Second, they require an administrator to recover data. But the biggest problem with tape, in my mind, is that such backups are made only sporadically because of the time and difficulty involved in doing live backups.

Clearly, a disk-based backup could ease most of these problems, and DPM, as a disk-based backup, does indeed allow for more frequent and more reliable backups. Organizations typically won't use DPM to replace a tape system, however. Instead, DPM can often act as a staging area of sorts between your users' data and the tape system. DPM backups can happen more frequently, letting users restore more recent data when disaster strikes. Long-term storage still gets written to tape when appropriate.

"We're trying to match customer pain points to functional areas in DPM," Whyte told me. "Backup is too slow and complex today. DPM removes the backup window and doesn't require a full backup. As you make data, it's backed up regularly with DPM."
However, because DPM is a Microsoft product, it takes things a step further by democratizing data recovery in the same way that Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) democratizes virtual ad hoc collaboration between coworkers. And, as with WSS, an administrator is often not required--which saves you time and money.

It's still a bit early to discuss how DPM will affect Microsoft's customer segments, and I've only begun examining the product. My guess is that version 1 won't be a great solution for small businesses but will instead focus on midsized businesses and enterprises. Whyte and Ralston said final requirements weren't yet available but that DPM would likely target environments with 5-99 servers. And version 1 won't integrate with Microsoft SQL Server, Exchange Server, or WSS, although future versions will. The initial version is 32-bit only.

Those small quibbles aside, DPM is worth investigating. I'll have more to say about DPM when I can speak a bit more about Windows 2003 R2. In the meantime, you can check out the public DPM beta on the Microsoft Web site.

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