The most valuable component in a data center is the time of the people who manage it. Even if a piece of technology performs well, it might end up costing an organization more than it is worth if it is so complex that substantial IT hours are required to configure and manage it.

As a systems administrator, I sometimes feel that storage has become needlessly complex. Creating and managing a SAN can involve expensive and complicated technologies, each with its own unique and arcane interface. Although it’s nice to assume that organizations will source their equipment from the same vendor, the reality is that in many data centers, equipment tends to accrete with solutions from many vendors, all requiring different management and configuration approaches.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by the capabilities of Storage Spaces in Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2. Storage Spaces abstracts away much of the detail and complexity of storage, making it much simpler and saving systems administrator hours.

For example, imagine that a year or two ago, you created a volume that used all the space available on a hardware RAID 10 array comprised of ten 2TB drives. You’ve been looking at the growth of data stored on that volume and have figured out that within 18 months, given current trends, it will be 50 percent over capacity.

Depending on the capabilities of the hardware that hosts the RAID 10 array, the pain level of expanding capacity is going to fall somewhere between attending a second-grade recorder recital and getting a root canal. More importantly, it’s going to take up valuable systems administrator time. Unless you have top-of-the-line, advanced network-storage hardware, expanding that redundant storage as your data requirements grow is going to be a challenge.

Storage Spaces, a feature native to Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2, provides the benefits of redundant storage with the ability to extend the size of the volumes hosted on that storage, as necessary. A big advantage of Storage Spaces is that you can keep adding disks to the storage pool on which the storage space is built. The disks don’t need to be the same size or type: You can add SSD, spinning disks, and industry standard JBOD encosures. So for example, if you need to enlarge a volume that uses a mirrored storage layout, you just add the appropriate number of disks to the storage pool and extend the volume. No need to go through all the configuration tribulations that you would encounter when attempting to extend mirrored storage on most traditional hardware arrays.

Storage Spaces includes other features, such as data tiering. Storage tiering is a technology that improves disk performance when you have a combination of SSD and traditional spinning disks. It works by moving frequently accessed data so that data is hosted on the part of the volume that stores data on faster media. Less frequently accessed data is moved (automatically, in Windows Server 2012 R2) to the part of the volume that stores data on traditional spinning media. As in most scenarios, only a small fraction of the data on a volume is regularly accessed, so this feature provides a big performance improvement without upgrading all of the underlying storage to SSD.

You can manage Storage Spaces by using the Server Manager console, Windows PowerShell, or System Center Virtual Machine Manager. Therefore, you have an interface that’s consistent with other Windows Server technologies and that you can automate by using existing PowerShell scripting skills and tools. You can expose volumes as iSCSI targets. All these features provide a level of consistency and administrative flexibility that’s difficult to maintain through the piecemeal accumulation of SAN hardware for your data center.

Storage Spaces is a new technology that changes the way that administrators conceive of and manage storage. Rather than simply assigning a volume to each disk or building a hardware RAID array, you can use Storage Spaces to grow redundant storage as necessary and to take advantage of performance-enhancing features such as data tiering. To find out more about Microsoft’s enterprise storage solutions, visit the Enterprise Storage page at http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/server-cloud/solutions/storage.aspx.