Over the past couple of years, Microsofts Enterprise Storage Division has signed up an increasing list of OEM partners for its network-attached storage architecture, and the result has been strong growth in sales of Windows-powered NAS. And more changes are due next month with the launch of the groups next-generation design, which is dubbed Storage Server 2003.
However, other than the MS seal of approval and the confidence that imprimatur can bring to some parts of the market, whats the appeal to storage vendors? Could it be the very same things we customers look for in a technology supplier?
Microsoft next month will offer a wider variety of NAS to OEM partners starting with the launch of its next-generation design, dubbed Windows Storage Server 2003. The current list of NAS partners includes Coastline Micro Inc.,Dell Inc., EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Iomega Corp.
Read about Microsofts Server Appliance Kit 2003 in this eWEEK story.
Starting with WSS 2003, the group will offer seven different configuration to partners, according to Claude Lorenson, product manager with the Enterprise Storage Division. This is more than double the number offered under the current (and for all purposes now previous) Microsoft-powered NAS program. During our conversation, held across the street from last weeks show, he called them stock-keeping units (SKUs).
For the high-end SKUs, Microsoft will offer enterprise-level capabilities such as support for clustering, Fibre Channel, iSCSI and load balancing. These and other features improve performance when the NAS is used as a gateway to a storage area network. (Earlier this summer, Microsoft released its iSCSI driver package for Windows Server 2003, Windows 2000, and Windows XP Professional.)
At the entry-level part the SKU list is a configuration that supports only two hard disks, uses software RAID and removes support for Unix NFS. "Were very conscious about differentiation. A small business environment wont have Unix servers. Its at a price that provides our OEMs the ability build a sub-$1,000 box and still make money," Lorenson said.
Another WSS 2003 SKU will add print server capabilities, useful in a small business or department environment. The feature had been requested by its OEM customers as well as from end users of the current versions.
"With WSS 2003 we have a real breadth of products, from a NAS box for $999 to a really high-end 48TB device, and all run by Windows," Lorenson said. "People are starting to realize that we can fine tune [NAS] for different environments. Before long, youre going to start seeing more focused offerings in every level."
In addition to the expanded SKUs, changes within Microsofts storage group will boost the technical and marketing support available for partners selling their NAS solutions.
The Enterprise Storage Division will release its own updates separate from the general server releases, Lorenson said. "There will be a WSS 2004, that will be totally upgradeable from 2003, and so on into the future. We will do our own patches and QFEs [Quick Fix Engineering updates] directly. This is only possible because we have an organization surrounding the product."
Check out Microsoft Watchs and the changes due with the forthcoming Microsoft Installer 3.0 technology.
"Were providing our OEMs with a performance cookbook, so they can tune the OS for different environments and boost the server performance, so they can have more than a straight out-of-the-box experience. We couldnt do that before."
Lorenson wouldnt comment on specific features slated for WSS 2004, other than a wry "software related to data and storage." However, he said the group was tasked with determining the future shape of storage management features for the SKUs. Or even whether the capabilities will be added to the core software or offered as a separate product.
Meanwhile, Microsoft also offers its OEM customers marketing assistance, leveraging its longstanding relationships with enterprise and SMB (small and mid-sized business) accounts and running joint marketing campaigns. Vanessa Lee, another product manager at the Enterprise Storage Division, said the group has hired a team of storage market specialists in different geographic areas to support its OEM partners. They assist with training of sales staff, for both Microsoft software as well as with applications such as backup and recovery.
Of course, this all sounds so easy. But theres a considerable span between the selection of a "SKU" and the product that we can purchase from a storage vendor. And customers will evaluate those products on their merits.
Still, in many ways the storage vendor, regardless of its size, will judge a technology supplier just like you and me. They appreciate good service and support. Certainly, Microsofts storage group will have a beefier pitch to OEM partners with Windows Storage Server 2003.
David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.
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