NAS for the masses

Microsoft has made an art form out of stealing good ideas and delivering them to the masses. Now the company is applying this strategy in an attempt to steal valuable ground in the NAS (network attached storage) market, taking advantage of the fact that each NAS device includes an operating system tailored to the movement of files between embedded storage devices and the outside world.

Offering highly scalable, distributed file storage that leverages the network backbone, NAS has become enormously popular among large enterprises thanks in part to the efforts of Network Appliance and EMC. And thanks to snapshot and other technologies, NAS boxes have also become a key data-management tool. Such data-management features mean rich margins for vendors in the space, and a market ripe for the harvest for Microsoft.

Enter Windows 2000 and the SAK (Server Appliance Kit). Recognizing that beefing up an OS with the capabilities necessary for managing a hierarchy of files, taking protective snapshots, and pooling multiple appliances could be too difficult for an NAS vendor without help from the OS developer, Microsoft has stepped in with the SAK, which offers an easy way to customize a Windows server for an NAS appliance.

Maxtor, one of the initial NAS vendors to partner with Microsoft, last year released three appliances based on Windows 2000 servers. Maxtor's latest effort, NAS 6000, caters to high-end users, offers hardware RAID and Gigabit Ethernet connectivity, and supports just about any client environment. More interestingly, NAS 6000 has rules-based storage administration, simplifies taking instant snapshots of data for backup and recovery, and can be easily pooled with other Maxtor appliances.

Furthermore, you could combine the Maxtor NAS with offerings from ISVs such as Executive Software, which is partnering with Microsoft to meet data-management needs with server appliance tools such as disk defragmenters and hard drive failure-detection software.

According to Zane Adam, Microsoft's product manager on the Windows 2000 team, these developments in NAS storage point to a compelling proposition. You're now looking at a cost of around 2.5 cents per megabyte for network-attached storage, rather than Network Appliance's 15 cents per megabyte, for example.

Naturally, high-end NAS players counter with the argument that commodity-level NAS boxes won't scale to meet the demands of the largest enterprise datacenter. That said, Microsoft is doing its best to extend the reach of the total NAS market, starting with file servers at the edge of the network and gradually raising the bar on entry-level features. In other words, the Network Appliances and EMCs of this world can forever kiss their comfy margins goodbye.

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