Microsoft moves into the storage arena

Microsoft receives a lot of criticism for some of the technologies the company bundles with its Windows OSs, with various organizations and groups calling for the removal of end-user applications such as Internet Explorer (IE) and Windows Media Player (WMP). But certain other technologies, arguably, should be part of the OS. Given the maturity of the current OS market and the ever-increasing set of capabilities we've come to expect from our PCs and server hardware, it's inevitable that Windows has grown from a bare-bones applications launcher to the versatile, full-featured platform we all know and use every day.

However, if Microsoft continues to step on the toes of its application partners, the ill will these partners feel toward Microsoft because they're competing to outdo Microsoft's freebies might begin to outweigh any benefits these partners see. In all fairness, Microsoft is racing to meet competition on the low-end from Linux and on the high-end from various UNIX systems, such as Solaris. As a result, the company can't afford to let Windows be left behind.

Enterprise storage is an important area that has long been the province of Microsoft's partners. But the storage market has undergone radical consolidations in recent years as the market has changed its focus from hardware-based solutions to software-based solutions. This situation has evolved because storage hardware—primarily hard disks and other mass storage devices—has become a commodity in all but the most high-end scenarios. So the software that controls storage devices has risen to the forefront of the market. And as storage requirements have scaled upward, the complexity of the software has risen as well.

Not surprisingly, storage is one of many enterprise concerns that have suddenly fallen under Microsoft's gaze. Earlier this year, the company created a new Enterprise Storage Division, under the guidance of long-time executive Bob Muglia, that will work on storage technologies the company can add to Windows and various other products.

Muglia's perspective on the move into storage is logical enough: "Microsoft has had an important role in storage management for many years—we build file systems, we build file servers, we build databases that people use to store information—but there are a lot of things we can do within our existing products, and our new products, to improve the way our systems work, make it easier for partners to build storage solutions, and give our customers a better experience," he said. "That's what my division is all about. It's about looking across the overall Microsoft product line, thinking about how we can improve Windows Server, thinking about how we can improve SQL Server, thinking about all the ways we can augment what we are already doing to provide a better experience for our business customers."

So what is Microsoft working on and how will it affect the company's storage partners? First, Microsoft will ship the Volume ShadowCopy Service (VSS) in Windows .NET Server (Win.NET Server), currently expected in late 2002. VSS will provide several useful data-caching features, including the ability to retrieve old file versions and access offline network data resources.

In 2003 or 2004, the company will release a new file system based on the next version of Microsoft SQL Server, code-named Yukon. The product will ship as part of the next Windows version, code-named Longhorn. Once known as Storage+ inside the company, this file system will let users query any type of data from one location. Consider the current situation, where you might store some data in the file system (e.g., Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint presentations), some in email systems such as Microsoft Exchange Server, and some in databases such as SQL Server. The Yukon database engine will consolidate the file system with the data stores in SQL Server, Exchange Server, and Active Directory (AD). Soon, the distinction between these data islands will blur and disappear.

Muglia says the goal is to make Windows the ultimate platform for storage-related applications—not to usurp the work already done by Microsoft's partners and competitors. I think the company has learned a valuable lesson from past behavior, when Microsoft pushed its way into markets dominated by its partners. Microsoft's storage plans will enable a new generation of inexpensive storage application servers and Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices that you can easily plug into existing environments, providing the same cost and ease-of-use benefits we experience today with off-the-shelf PC components. And underlying work on the stability, reliability, and scalability of the Windows platform can only make Windows-based storage solutions all the more desirable.

On a related note, I'm going to visit with the Windows Server team twice during the next 30 days, and I'm interested in any feedback you have about which features and services you think should—or shouldn't—be included in future Windows Server products. Let me know, and I'll pass along the feedback.