Is Microsoft Ready To Be A Storage Player?

Microsoft's Storage Spaces may not have every enterprise feature yet, but don't dismiss it as a marginal product.

Mark Peters

August 26, 2013

8 Min Read
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Would you expect Microsoft to offer enterprise-class storage? It sounds a bit silly given that a) Microsoft isn't a storage vendor and b) the storage industry behemoths offer plenty of innovative products. But the fact is Windows Server 2012 includes quite a repertoire of storage features, from deduplication to thin provisioning, including the product I'm focusing on here: Storage Spaces.

I don't often focus on a particular vendor in this column, but Storage Spaces is worth covering for two reasons: because Microsoft is an integrated part of the "IT furniture," and because of the view this product gives to a new storage approach.

Formally introduced last September, Windows Server 2012 includes appealing new features for cloud environments, such as improvements to Hyper-V virtualization. A significant chunk of the improvements are storage-focused, letting customers add advanced SAN features to commodity hardware and/or existing storage investments, but with significantly less complexity and cost. Customers gain access to features such as thin provisioning, multi-pathing, deduplication, continuous availability and live migration, which in the past demanded large budgets and storage expertise.

At a high level, Storage Spaces lets organizations buy commodity disk drives (e.g., an array of hard drives often called JBOD, or "just a bunch of disks"), connect them to a Windows server and quickly deploy inexpensive storage with high-level features. Without buying fancy SAN components, customers can get enterprise-class security, performance, scalability and dynamic provisioning. Companies can deploy Storage Spaces on application servers, file servers and Hyper-V virtual machines. The product virtualizes disk resources -- SAS, SATA, JBOD -- into a single pool or multiple pools, with easy capacity expansion.

[ Steve Ballmer badly bungled Microsoft's client services strategy. Can the company recover? Read Ballmer Is Off The Matrix. ]

Storage Spaces lets administrators configure virtual hard disks that deliver attributes such as resiliency, thin provisioning, automatic or controlled allocation and specific administrative control. Customers can configure three types of Spaces:

Simple Spaces: This configuration includes striping data across a number of drives, with no protection from drive failure.

Mirrored Spaces: This configuration stripes data across multiple drives and adds a mirror for failure protection (similar to RAID 10).

Parity Spaces: Here, data is striped across multiple drives, with distributed parity (similar to RAID 5) to protect against drive failure.

Trim is also supported so that administrators can reclaim storage capacity in certain circumstances. The software-based resiliency options deliver RAID-like protection, but without some of the challenges of RAID, such as the RAID write hole -- an indication that despite being a market newcomer, Microsoft isn't afraid to "do its own thing." Microsoft has demonstrated a surprising level of storage sophistication.

For multitenant hosting environments, Storage Spaces supports access control lists to maintain separation, and it can be fully integrated with Active Directory for familiar Windows security. Storage Spaces is also integrated with failover clustering for high availability and load balancing, as well as with Cluster Shared Volumes V2. Also important is the simple management of Storage Spaces -- required if you want to have Windows administrators start handling storage. There's a File and Storage Services GUI in Windows Server Manager, as well as scriptable remote management using APIs and PowerShell and task automation with many new Windows PowerShell cmdlets.

Easier, Cheaper Enterprise-Class Storage

OK, enough on the technical side. Let's talk about customer value.

First, Storage Spaces is easy to use and manage. Your Windows admin can handle it with no additional training, so it also reduces management costs. Next, it provides enterprise-class storage without the complexity and cost of a complex SAN environment.

Microsoft is investing in Storage Spaces. With R2 it's adding sub-LUN tiering, write-back caching, dual-parity protection (similar to RAID 6) and additional deduplication features. It's increasingly obvious that Redmond has every intention of delivering a full suite of enterprise-class features. It has the list and is checking off the boxes one by one.

Will Microsoft Become a Big Storage Player?

The capabilities of Storage Spaces should create some disruption in the SAN value chain. Any time there's something cheaper and easier, it will wreak some havoc. And with 55% of respondents to a recent Enterprise Strategy Group survey citing a moderate to severe lack of administrators who can support storage, there's clearly a hole to fill.

In addition, since most companies have Microsoft products somewhere, its market entry should be a breeze. While the idea of running critical applications in a Windows environment would have been considered unthinkable a decade ago, Windows is now a crucial part of the modern data center. What hasn't changed from the old days is the pain and great expense of conventional storage implementations. Suffice it to say that the market is ripe.

If Storage Spaces works well and Microsoft shops start buying from little JBOD companies, will that cut into the market share of the big gorillas? If Microsoft isn't pushing multimillion-dollar boxes from EMC and HP, what happens to those partnerships?

The virtual SAN concept (using software to virtualize disk resources and "spread the wealth" among servers in a cluster) is already proven. A few examples (beyond the older storage hypervisors) are ScaleIO (recently acquired by EMC), Nutanix, StorMagic, and even HP (with LeftHand VSA software) and VMware.

It will be fascinating to see if the big incumbents treat Storage Spaces dismissively. Expect to hear them declare that Storage Spaces "is fine at the low end" in an attempt to segregate the market. If they do, they could end up like the U.S. auto industry, which initially dismissed the likes of Toyota and Honda in the same way.Storage Spaces has its weaknesses. For one, Parity Spaces performance is lacking for write-focused operations. In a typical SAN, parity calculations are done in the storage array, where the number crunching doesn't impact server CPU. That's not the case here, and as a result application write performance can stall, making Parity Spaces a poor option for write-intensive applications with sensitive performance requirements.

In addition, a significant part of the Storage Spaces cost equation involves using cheap JBOD, but companies selling cheap JBOD have no brand recognition and customer support. It may be hard for IT administrators to trust their data to that setup: "I don't know you, and you offer no support -- can you really take care of my critical corporate data?"

Microsoft isn't stupid. Its answer is to certify JBOD configurations, with storage-focused companies such as DataON and RAID Inc. Server vendors including SuperMicro, Fujitsu and Quanta have also been certified, and others will follow. The Microsoft stamp of approval will help, as will Microsoft's addition of corporate support when you buy from those vendors.

But will organizations try it? If you think about it, there's minimal risk as long as you're protecting your data somewhere. If you're upgrading to Server 2012 and have some storage lying around, what's the worst that could happen? If you try Storage Spaces and don't like it, you haven't lost any data, and you haven't made any huge investment in SAN arrays, switches, adapters or staff training.

Another sticky wicket will be trying to sell "storage by Windows" to storage administrators whose jobs will be impacted. Expect some pushback. This decision highlights yet again how virtualization helps blur the lines between administrative functions. Innovations shine a spotlight on the inefficiency of the conventional management structure that demands strict separation between the application, server, network and storage domains.

Storage Spaces Is the Real Deal

While much of what you're hearing from Redmond these days is focused on other products -- such as Hyper-V and Azure -- Storage Spaces is pretty darned cool. It creates virtualized storage pools out of commodity hardware and layers on software to deliver enterprise-class features. Physical and virtual storage can be combined into pools that are easy to scale and provision. IT can create a service catalog to deliver a variety of performance and availability characteristics by workload.

And it really works. It's easy to configure and manage, as our ESG Lab proved with hands-on testing of performance, scalability and cost-effectiveness. While Storage Spaces doesn't have every enterprise storage feature (for instance, no in-box replication), Microsoft is investing in the product and adding to its feature set.

I can hear the skepticism now: "You're telling me I can get high performance, resiliency and easy management at a fraction of the cost of an expensive SAN? And I won't need a highly skilled (and expensive) SAN administrator to run it? Why isn't everyone doing this?" That's a good question.

Answering Today's Demands

Storage Spaces fits nicely into the changing landscape of IT. The other day I needed to share a document with a recent college grad, so naturally I asked for an email address. She replied, "No need -- you can just upload the doc to Facebook with an inbox message!" For the younger generation, everything works magically in the cloud from a single interface. It doesn't occur to them (and why should it?) to use different methods to do the same thing: communicate.

Microsoft seems to be working from that same premise. Why should customers manage different parts of the infrastructure separately when they can manage applications, servers, storage, networking and a cloud gateway, all simply (and cheaply), from a single location? Storage Spaces is an example of Microsoft fulfilling two requirements: the corporate need for modern, self-service, consumerization features, and the need for enterprise-class functionality, virtualization, convergence and interoperability.

ESG recently surveyed storage and other IT professionals about their long-term view of storage technology. Almost a third (32%) said they expect storage to become a less-specialized discipline, built on cheap hardware, with software features operating at the virtualization/data center operating system level. While 32% isn't a majority, it's an awfully large portion who expect storage to shift from being an esoteric domain of nerds in white lab coats.

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