Microsoft Presents Storage Alternative

Plans to use 'wasted' disk space to build huge storage nets. What's it mean for SANs?

August 4, 2001

3 Min Read
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Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) this week offered analysts a first preview peak at its hush-hush, next-generation, file storage system, named Farsite. Reaction was muted and mixed.

The Microsofties have been quietly working on Farsite for the past twoyears -- claiming it will withstand the most severe earthquakes and mighteventually become the largest storage network in the world.”

”Yeah right! And Bill Gates is a really nice man,” said one analyst whowitnessed the first demonstration of the system at Microsoft’s headquartersin Redmond, Wash., this week. (Irony is popular in the Northwest.)

Farsite (the acronym awkwardly stands for Federated, Available, and Reliable Storagefor an Incompletely Trusted Environment) aims to store replicas of files onmultiple machines, enabling companies to save on having to buy hundredsof disks and servers.

Essentially, it is a piece of Microsoft software (start praying) thatprovides the functionality of a central file server, but without the need to purchase, install, manage, and maintain a centralserver machine. Instead, a group of desktop client computers running thesoftware collaboratively establish a virtual file server that can beaccessed by any of the clients. Microsoft says storing the data on manynetworked PCs increases reliability -- and cuts costs.The technology is aimed at corporations or universities withtens of thousands of machines, storing billions of files, containingtrillions of bytes of data, Microsoft says. In other words, a giant-sizednetwork,traditionally requiring giant-sized storage.

Microsoft came up with the idea by looking at the way its own employees useand store data. The systems and networks research group discovered that mostof the company employees’ personal hard disks were nowhere near full.Keeping an eye on this over a couple of years, they noticed that thepercentage of users’ disks that remain unused is increasing, as the size ofnew hard disks grows.

Farsite aims to take advantage of this “wasted” space, the companysays.

The software incorporates the “toughest” RSA encryption algorithms, to assure that eachuser’s files are only available to those who should see them, officials say.It is also able to balance disk loads so that no single system getsoverloaded.

The first test this week was carried out on 150 to 200 PCs, butresearchers say that it conceivably could support up to 10,000machines.“There are some interesting legal issues,” says John Lawler, storageanalyst at

Infonetics Research Inc.. For instance, if someone is storing pornography ontheir machine, and other machines are arbitrarily chosen to be its backups, are all the machines storing the picture in flagrante?

In other words, there are still plenty of unanswered questions thatwill determine whether Farsite is really a feasible alternative totraditional storage systems. For one, companies have to archive their datasomewhere, for legal purposes. So will Microsoft set up giant server farmsand offer an MSN contract to turn up the service? Or will hosting providersbe able to play in this space?

And what happens to SANs? The majority of these are used for backuptoday, but under this scheme that use would seem to disappear.

“It’s hardly earth-shattering,” says Galen Shreck, analyst with Forrester Research Inc.. “Others have been at this idea for much longer.”

xFS: Serverless Network File Service, developed as part of the NOWproject at Berkeley, and

Compaq Computer Corp. (NYSE: CPQ) are also researching the same idea.Although a long way from becoming a standard fixture, these schemes present an interesting take onhow networked storage might evolve, and with Microsoft entering the fray,they are at least guaranteed some attention.

— Jo Maitland, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

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