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December 5, 2006

Microsoft, Dell push NAS up-market

Dell Inc has become the first major vendor to ship gear running the latest storage-tailored version of Windows, pushing its NAS up-market into iSCSI support and easier clustering.

By CBR Staff Writer

The new software is the successor to Microsoft’s NAS-tailored Windows Storage Server 2003, and is the latest installment in Microsoft’s long-running efforts to expand out of its low-end ghetto into the mid-range NAS market.

Because the software adds support for block-level iSCSI-based data access, it has been named Window Unified Data Storage Server, or WUDSS.

By adding iSCSI support, Microsoft is following in the steps of EMC Corp and Network Appliance Inc, the two suppliers who dominate the mid-range and high-end of the NAS market. NetApp added iSCSI support to its NAS filers in 2003, and EMC did the same for its boxes in 2004.

Microsoft claimed that by adding block-level support WUDSS-powered storage more friendly for database applications, and for Microsoft Exchange. While Exchange is already able to work with file-level storage via the SMB protocol, performance is increased when it accesses storage at the block level via iSCSI.

That in turn means that customers will want to set up failover cluster pairs of the WUDDS-powered boxes in order to support these more critical applications. And until now, Windows-powered NAS has not been easy to cluster.

A lot of customers would tell you that it was fairly technical, and you needed a lot of experience to set it up, said Bala Kasiviswanathan, Microsoft product manager. The biggest value-add we’re delivering, and the area where we and Dell put the most development resources is in the automation of the clustering set-up, he said.

An alternative perspective on the clustering is that mid-range disk arrays – both NAS and block-level – have the option for dual controllers. Clustering of Intel-powered Windows-driven servers provides the same degree of processor failover, Kasiviswanathan said.

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Alongside the clustering and iSCSI support, Microsoft said that WUDDS improves on both the CIFS and NFS file-handling performance of the previous WSS03 code, although it would not quote any numbers to support that claim.

Microsoft shipped its first version of its Windows OS tailored to power NAS devices in 2000, and it very rapidly colonized the low end of the NAS market. Now it claims that by IDC’s numbers it owns 56% of the market for NAS devices costing from $500 to $50,000. But within that price band, Windows sales are biased to the low end.

Further upmarket and in the next price band where the bulk of the revenue is, Windows has not made much of a dent in the sales of EMC’s Dart-powered Celerra NAS, or NetApp’s OnTap-powered FAS boxes. Within the total NAS market, Windows’ percentage share of the action is still only in the teens.

Microsoft has never given up ambitions of moving onto the higher NAS ground, and at every previous update to Windows Storage Server it has talked up its chances of establishing a mid-range presence. Yesterday Dell chimed in when it said that its WUDSS-powered box is its largest Windows NAS box yet.

This is bringing us up against NetApp’s FAS250s and FAS270s, the company said.

The single and dual-controller box is called is called the NX 1950, and it carries list prices starting at $17,500. It can be set up with 4.5TB of disk for less than $24,500, according to Dell, and will scale up to 45 3.5in SAS drives, or 13.5TB.

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