Mixed messages

It seems Microsoft really has it in for NAS (network attached storage). In case you missed it, the buzz in some technical bulletins of late suggests Microsoft only wants you to use Exchange 2000 with block-level storage devices, and that's causing IT managers some heartache.

Microsoft's decision to pull the plug on Exchange's support of file-based repositories such as NAS is interesting on a few fronts, not the least of which is that Microsoft is attempting to commoditize the NAS market with its Windows 2000 OS and SAK (Server Appliance Kit) running on cheap hardware. You would think this strategy rests at least partly on the assumption that using NAS devices makes it much simpler to manage your calendaring, e-mail, and messaging resources than using block-level storage.

Ironically, the reality is quite the opposite: Exchange 2000 will not work unless it has direct control of the storage devices that contain its files. Obviously, this leaves out most NAS boxes because they offer storage access via a network interface, restricting the choice to directly attached storage or SANs (storage area networks).

At the core of the issue is the goal of improving Exchange 2000's I/O performance through the use of IFS (Installable File System), a set of tools that gives developers direct access to storage device internals. Nevertheless, Exchange 2000 is a good example of how some products make managing storage more complicated and hence more expensive. In fairness, it should be said that other I/O-intensive applications, such as SAP R/3, also sacrifice ease of management for performance.

Of course, the situation becomes more complicated when your company's rampant e-mail use demands more storage. The addition of NAS boxes can be your most cost-effective option because NAS is less expensive to buy and manage than its alternatives. And if you look at some of the capabilities offered by EMC Corp. and Network Appliance Inc., such as instant snapshots, the NAS solution can be quite compelling.

Microsoft Exchange's lack of support for NAS environments means the support mantle falls on NAS vendors, who in turn must invest more resources to accommodate Exchange's requirements. The cost of these additional resources, of course, will unfailingly be passed on to customers. And so, for storage managers, the decision comes down to whether you need lightning fast e-mail courtesy of a SAN configuration that can handle the performance demand, or the low-cost and flexible alternative of NAS. In either case, Microsoft is demonstrating that, as a storage software vendor, it needs to develop a consistent strategy where NAS is concerned. To rework the old saying, "Caveat emptor" -- let the NAS buyer beware.

Is Microsoft storage friendly? E-mail us at mario_apicella@infoworld.com and mark_jones@infoworld.com.

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