Windows Storage Server-Based Systems Step Into 2008

Windows Storage Server is one of the most interesting products from Redmond. It is a specialized version of Windows Server 2003 R2 with integrated storage target capabilities, including iSCSI, NFS, and of course SMB file services. It also includes single-instance storage (file-level deduplication), distributed file system (DFS), integrated SAN management, file server resource management (FSRM), multi-path I/O (MPIO), and solid software and hardware RAID support. Want to get a copy for yourself? You can’t! Wondering why you haven’t heard much about it? Windows Storage Server is sold only as part of an integrated hardware/software combination available from major OEMs like HP and Dell.

Although Windows Server 2008, with its many storage feature updates, was released last year, the updated version of Windows Storage Server was still under construction until last month. But Windows Storage Server 2008 is available to manufacturers today! Expect to see some new Intel-based storage array announcements in the coming weeks!

For my personal experiences with Windows Storage Server 2008, see my blog post, I Can Finally Talk About Windows Storage Server 2008!

What’s new in Storage Server 2008? Plenty! Most of the features are inherited from Windows Server 2008:

  1. Server Message Block (SMB) 2.0 is a re-working of the traditional Windows NAS protocol. Also present in Vista and Server 2008, SMB 2.0 reduces the notorious chattiness of SMB, combining multiple commands into a single packet, as well as allowing more simultaneous open connections and larger buffers as well as durable file handles.  Performance gains using both SMB 2.0 clients and servers has been phenominal with Tom’s Hardware showing a 5x gain in throughput over the Internet!
  2. The NFS server (also present in Windows Server 2008) has been updated.
  3. A new MMC snap-in called Storage Explorer lets you manage WMI-compliant SAN devices.
  4. File Server Resource Manager (FSRM) is a full-featured storage resource management (SRM) application and has been improved greatly for both the Server and Storage Server versions of 2008 with quotas, file screening, and advanced reporting.
  5. DFS-R and DFS-N are tweaked – Jose Barreto gets into this on his blog.
  6. Smaller or branch offices (and low-end storage array vendors) will be interested in using BitLocker full-volume drive encryption to protect their data.
  7. Storage Manager for SANs (SMfS) allows you to perform basic storage array administration tasks within Windows.
  8. The Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) and DFS interfaces are improved and are now scriptable with PowerShell (through WMI).
  9. The new but not yet complete Windows Server Backup system replaces the outdated and limited NTBackup system. Although it includes bare-metal recovery, Server Backup isn’t ready for prime time in my opinion. I’m looking for major improvements in R2!
  10. Search 4.0 and 2008 SP2 adds full-text search for files stored on a Storage Server.
  11. Server 2008 now automatically aligns filesystem boundaries with storage, which was one of those dark and secret skills us storage guys used to share amongst ourselves.  This can increase performance in high-I/O environments.
  12. NTFS (in both Server 2008 and Vista) now has symbolic link support, just like UNIX and Mac OS X, and SMB 2.0 supports symlinks as well.
  13. NTFS was also tuned and tweaked a bit for better stability and crash recovery.
  14. The updated virtual disk service (VDS) supports LUN shrinking, online/offline and read-only/read-write settings, and SAN policies so new LUNs can be treated as either online, offline, or shared.
  15. Failover clustering is simplified, requiring just a few clicks to set up.

Although all of these are also present in the basic Windows Server 2008 install, Windows Storage Server 2008 includes some unique features:

  1. The included iSCSI target software is unique
    1. It’s been updated to support failover clustering
    2. It now includes VDS and VSS providers
    3. It’s been ported to StorPort
    4. Installation is now done in the standard Windows manner, with an MSI not an EXE
    5. You can now set up an IPv6-only iSCSI SAN and specify initiators directly using their IPv6 addresses
    6. CHAP secret security is enhanced
  2. Single-Instance Storage (SIS) is the second major Storage Server differentiator, providing file-level deduplication
    1. SIS used to be limited to 6 volumes per node, but now scales to 128
    2. SIS now supports clustering, though SIS doesn’t span nodes
    3. A new command allows one to undo single-instancing instead of copying all of a volume’s content to another drive
    4. Enabling SIS is simpler – it’s now just a checkbox per volume in the Share and Storage Management UI
  3. Many performance tuning tweaks are standard out of the box, though readers of the Windows Server 2008 Performance Tuning White Paper might be able to perform these on their own. One major standard tweak was removing 8.3 naming and disabling aliasing on filesystem – this led to an an 8% performance gain right out of the box.
  4. Remote administration through HTTP is very cool, and ought to be standard on every version of Windows Server! Just point a web browser to the server and you will have an ActiveX or Java-based RDP client without installing any software.
  5. Licensing is one more unique aspect. Storage Server does not require client-access licenses (CALs) so any number of clients can access the system without worrying about license management.

All in all, Storage Server 2008 is a solid move forward. I expect that the ability to do single-instance storage at full native speed will be very useful for corporate file servers and similar applications, and the enhancements overall are welcome as well. But this will be the last release of Windows Storage Server as a separate product. From now on, Microsoft simply release OEM storage server software on top of their standard Windows Server versions for OEM’s to use. There will not even be a special Service Pack 2 version of Storage Server 2008. Instead, expect OEMs to provide the regular Server 2008 SP2 as a suggested or required update to Storage Server users.

Microsoft is detailing the new version of Windows Storage Server 2008 in a webcast Thursday at 8 AM Pacific. You should also check out the official Microsoft site, and the Microsoft Storage Server blog, especially their post, A Brief History of Windows Storage Server Releases.

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