At Storage Networking World earlier this month, Microsoft announced the availability of Windows Storage Server 2003 Release 2 (R2), which customers can buy on dedicated storage hardware provided by a number of Microsoft's OEM partners. Windows Storage Server is a far cry from the earlier Server Appliance Kit (SAK) that Microsoft offered OEMs to build Windows-based storage devices, and it offers significant advantages over other Windows-based storage options.

Unlike the SAK, which enabled OEMS to build a headless storage server but was otherwise no different from any other version of Windows Server, Storage Server R2 has three key features that are available only in this server version: file-server performance optimization, Single Instance Storage (SIS), and index-based search.

You could conceivably implement all the performance optimization required for file serving in any version of Windows Server 2003, but doing so isn't a simple process. (For complete details about performance-tuning Windows 2003, check out "Performance Tuning Guidelines for Windows Server 2003" at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/evaluation/performance/tuning.mspx.) With the OEM versions of Storage Server R2, vendors can optimize the OS directly for their hardware platform.

SIS was previously available only in the Windows Server OSs with Microsoft Remote Installation Services (RIS) installed. When enabled, SIS scans storage volumes for duplicate files, then moves duplicates to the SIS common Store and replaces them on the volume with a link file. The process is completely transparent to end users; any file link a user has remains valid, and when a user creates a unique version of the file, that unique version is available to the user. The substitution of links for duplicate files reduces the amount of disk space an enterprise requires, especially in organizations that have lots of static data. (Microsoft has claimed instances of storage-requirement reductions of as much as 70 percent.) After Storage Server R2 does its primary scanning for files, the impact of the usage of links on file-service performance is minimal. CA, CommVault, and Symantec currently offer backup products that support SIS.

Storage Server R2 provides an index-based, full-text search that's founded on the indexing engine already built into Windows Server. Microsoft has updated the Storage Server R2 search engine to enable high-performance, indexed searches on network shares and provide direct support for performing text searches in Microsoft Office applications. Storage Server R2 also provides filters for searching many standard file formats, such as .zip, AutoCAD, XML, MP3, and .pdf.

Direct support for Microsoft's collaboration software, Windows SharePoint Services and Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server, is also built into the storage server software. (This support is included in Windows 2003 as well.) The SharePoint support will simplify storage integration for businesses that use the SharePoint collaboration services.

You manage Storage Server R2 via the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) Storage Management snap-in. You can perform management tasks for all your R2 servers on the network from a single console, such as managing DFS shares (DFS-R, DFS-N, and RDC). The use of DFS shares is important in making full use of Storage Server R2's capabilities because DFS provides a key means for managing data across hardware running Windows Server OSs.

Industry observers and customers have criticized Storage Server R2 because it can't be an iSCSI target (a data provider); rather, it's an iSCSI initiator (a data retriever). To address this deficiency, last month Microsoft acquired String Bean Software's WinTarget technology. Microsoft will include WinTarget with future Storage Server releases. (For more information about the WinTarget acquisition and the WinTarget product, see http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/wss2003/productinformation/newsreviews/stringbean.mspx and http://www.stringbeansoftware.com/products.asp.) You can find more details about Storage Server 2003 R2 at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/wss2003/default.mspx