With the release of Windows Storage Server 2003 Feature Pack, Microsoft took another important step in the storage arena. The feature pack, which facilitates consolidation of Microsoft Exchange Server data stores on Windows Storage Server systems, automates the process of migrating Exchange data and log files from direct-attached storage to a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. After an administrator uses a configuration wizard to move data to NAS, a service redirects Exchange to the new storage location rather than to Exchange's own storage resources.

Numerous Microsoft storage partners, including Dell, EMC, and HP, as well has Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) such as CommVault Systems and VERITAS Software, have embraced the feature pack. Officials at one early-adopter site reported managing 100,000 email messages in 10 minutes without a hitch.

The release of the feature pack follows the announcement last November that 18 hardware vendors had qualified their Internet SCSI (iSCSI) products with Windows under the Microsoft Designed for Windows Logo Program. Approximately 6 months before that, Redmond had announced the Microsoft iSCSI Software Initiator, which enables the use of IP SCSI networks for block-based storage over long distances and provides an alternative to Fibre Channel-based Storage Area Networks (SANs).

These announcements demonstrate Microsoft's clear intention to expand its footprint in the storage arena. In fact, Microsoft has stealthily become a major player in the market already: Since it began shipping Windows Storage Server, Microsoft has garnered about 50 percent of the Windows-based NAS market. To better understand the company's long-term storage strategy, I talked to Marcus Schmidt, senior product manager for Windows Storage Server.

According to Schmidt, Windows Storage Server is positioned differently than the other Microsoft server products. First, it's sold only through OEM and ISV partners. The only similar offerings in the Microsoft server family, Schmidt noted, are Windows Server 2003, Datacenter Edition and other Windows Datacenter Server versions. By working with its partners, Microsoft has developed a variety of server solutions. "Some focus on the entry level," Schmidt observed. "Some focus on the NAS gateway market." Other partners concentrate on serving specific geographic areas.

Moreover, Schmidt noted, Windows Storage Server was the first Windows-based NAS solution. "It was something that our customers were looking for," Schmidt said. "The key motive for us getting into the NAS market was to answer \[customers'\] requests to give them a Windows offering." At the time, NAS solutions were based on either proprietary OSs or on variations of open-source OSs. As a result, NAS was too complicated a solution for many small and midsized businesses because it required a new platform and different tools.

Many such customers can't justify a dedicated storage administrator, so the same staff that manages the Windows servers is also responsible for storage. Windows Storage Server, Schmidt observed, lets those customers embrace NAS and still use the management tools with which they're familiar. "When people start thinking that NAS is running on a standard Intel platform running a standard OS from Microsoft, their comfort level rises," he said. Often, it takes less than 15 minutes to get Windows Storage Server up and running.

The release of the feature pack addresses an emerging environment in which direct-attached storage is simply no longer an option even for many small companies. The sheer quantity of email and new regulations for email retention require a more scalable, flexible approach than direct-attached storage can provide. NAS represents the next level in sophistication for storage.

Although helping customers who face a virtual tsunami of email move to NAS is Microsoft's short-term focus, the company is also addressing longer-term concerns by investing in virtualization technology. Microsoft Virtual Disk Service (VDS) is aimed at enabling Windows to better manage SAN environments and Microsoft Dfs technology, which abstracts the physical location of files so applications don't break after files are moved.

But perhaps the most intriguing long-term initiative is the development of the Common Engineering Criteria, which was announced at Microsoft TechEd last month. The Common Engineering Criteria is aimed at building common features across all of Microsoft's server products, or what the company now calls the Windows Server System. "The idea is to make sure that customers don't have to relearn four or five different ways of dealing with server products from Microsoft," Schmidt said.

In the long run, Microsoft server products could emerge with the same level of interoperability as Microsoft Office products. Indeed, the release of the Windows Storage Server 2003 Feature Pack could be the first move in that direction. If that vision of interoperability is achieved, it could be a significant development as Microsoft girds itself to compete with technology stacks based on Linux and open-source middleware products and seeks to make its storage solutions the logical first choice in many settings.