By John Webster, Illuminata
Storage analysts tend to ignore Microsoft. We think that when they talk about disk, they really mean a hard disk in a PC. But PCs are pass?t Microsoft. The PC wave has crested and broken on the shore. Appliances are the next wave, and Microsoft wants to ride it. Scratch that. Microsoft wants to catch the appliance wave, shred it, shoot the curl, and hang ten. They like appliances of all kinds, and especially the ones related to network-attached storage (NAS). So, look out storage world. Here comes Microsoft - the storage company.
Microsoft divides storage appliances into two categories: those used in NAS devices, and those used everywhere else in the storage network. And while we have seen some incarnations of scaled-down versions of Windows 2000 in SAN appliances (e.g., DataCore and other SAN appliances), Microsoft's short-term focus is on NAS. Why? Windows-based file servers are under attack from all sides. When a big NAS vendor with its own home-grown operating system like Network Appliance walks in, it doesn't take out just a few Windows server licenses, it takes out dozens. Microsoft will no longer stand idly by and watch that happen.
Microsoft's approach to NAS is both interesting and difficult to characterize. While its not out beating the bushes looking for anyone and everyone with a yen to build NAS appliances on NAS-optimized versions of Windows 2000, it's not playing hard to get either. Microsoft's sharing its vision and suggestions for product initiatives with a few chosen partners. The strategy is similar to earlier entries Microsoft has made into other markets (i.e. stalk the market in stealth mode, identify and quietly form relationships with key partners, and later establish a dominant position through a broadening of those relationships with key partners and adding new ones). So far, it has made public its NAS relationships with three vendors: Compaq, Dell, and IBM. We expect more to be added to the list.
The Dell-Microsoft NAS relationship is illustrative. In many ways, it's a marriage of equals. Both have dominant positions in other segments of the market, but not in storage. Nevertheless, both are striving for the kind of ubiquity in NAS that they are used to in the markets they do dominate. The key to the relationship is commoditization. Dell offers its legendary model that leverages partnerships and the Internet, eliminating as much inefficiency in the supply chain as possible. Doing so allows Dell to be very aggressive with its competitors on price. Check the price of Dell's PowerVault 735N -- a mere $.025/MB. That's aggressive. Microsoft likes an aggressive hardware vendor for obvious reasons. And Dell is also going after a segment of the NAS market that couldn't be a more comfortable fit for Microsoft -- the Windows user base. In the file server replacement game, while Dell's version of Microsoft NAS might not be a net gain for Microsoft, it's not a complete loss either.
The Compaq relationship is also interesting, but for different reasons. Compaq is taking Microsoft NAS up market with its introduction of NAS clustering based on Microsoft Cluster Server (MSCS) in its TaskSmart N-Series Cluster. The objective here is not the consolidation of Windows-based file servers, but the consolidation and replacement of NAS filers where high availability is an overriding issue. Again, this prospect is attractive to Microsoft because, assuming the NAS filers displaced some Windows file servers in the first place, Compaq helps Microsoft take back some ground it lost in a previous battle.
Will Microsoft's entry into NAS be a good thing for NAS users? Possibly. The scaled- down, performance-tweaked version of the Windows 2000 kernel that's now appearing in NAS appliances bears a close resemblance to its bigger Windows 2000 brother. The Windows 2000 look and feel -- Microsoft calls it "intuitive" -- is delivered via the same web browser-based user interface. It also uses a number of the same services found in the full-blown Windows 2000. This will empower a legion of MSCEs to operate the appliance with little training, negating a customer staffing issue. On the other hand, it also uses Active Directory, and users concerned with Microsoft's promulgation of a proprietary directory structure may think twice. And, an improper shutdown will force a checkdisk procedure on reboot. While this will probably not impact performance, because Windows 2000 checkdisk is run as a background procedure, it is nevertheless a matter worth investigating.
The big plus for users is price. Vendors basing products on Microsoft NAS will work hard to differentiate products by applying their own value-add features. Compaq, for example, plans to add mirroring, remote copy, a distributed file system, and a Fibre Channel back end to its Microsoft NAS. The net effect will be a lowering of the price point users must pay to gain access to these value-added features.
What's ahead? We expect to see more highly differentiated NAS platforms. How about a NAS device for Exchange that's been certified by Microsoft? That would be met with resounding customer approbation -- a fact not lost in Redmond. Or, how about a NAS SQL Server? That could help sell more SQL Server licenses.
So now we have Microsoft the storage company to keep an eye on. It will be like watching an NBA basketball game in which one team fields a 7'8" player from another country. The big guy might never catch on, but if he does -- watch out.
John Webster is a senior analyst with Illuminata , a research and consulting firm in Nashua, NH.