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Shedding any notions among customers of being no more than a novelty within the tightly contested storage market, Microsoft is aggressively leveraging OEM partnerships and pursuing ways to slice data management complexity and cost.

The next step in that methodical process will take place at the Storage Networking World conference April 3-6 in San Diego. There, Microsoft will announce the availability of Windows Storage Server 2003 Release 2 through a variety of OEM deals.

Microsoft also will unveil support for a software-based SAN (storage area network) boot of Windows Server 2003 using iSCSI and new enhancements surrounding Microsoft’s Simple SAN for Windows Server Program.

Microsoft acquires iSCSI storage assets from String Bean. Click here to read more.

At this point in its nascent storage strategy, Microsoft has deftly targeted an audience with which it is quite familiar—SMBs (small and midsize businesses) relying on Windows environments, which have traditionally been overlooked by larger storage vendors building more complex and costly hardware and software products.

In fact, IT research company IDC, of Framingham, Mass., says the SMB market is poised to grow by leaps and bounds. On March 29, IDC released a study that said SMBs will more aggressively pursue more advanced storage offerings over the next 12 months.

The No. 1 priority for SMBs, which currently devote the largest share of disk storage to e-mail and digital content, will be increasing storage capacity, according to the IDC study.

“I always feel like I’m looking for information. It’s such a big puzzle … [but] I don’t need those high-end capabilities,” said Alan Hunt, manager of operations for Detroit-based law firm Dickinson Wright. “I think that Microsoft has been focusing on great things [over] the last few years—from my perspective … security and storage. It’s having the [storage] pieces within the [operating system] that’s very critical, and it drives prices down.”

Microsoft’s various efforts in storage all map to what Bob Muglia, senior vice president of the Redmond, Wash., company’s Windows Server Division, refers to as “universal distributed storage,” defined as a long-term commitment by Microsoft to drive down customers’ storage costs.

The core strategy entails bringing traditionally high-end capabilities directly into the Windows platform and encouraging new products and services from storage and hardware partners.

Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 OEM products set to be available as of the week of April 3 include the Dell PowerEdge 830—soon to be followed by Dell’s PowerEdge 2900—and the entry-level Hewlett-Packard ProLiant ML310 Storage Server and ProLiant DL100 G2 Storage Server, as well as the midlevel ProLiant DL380 G4 Storage Server and high-end ProLiant DL585 Storage Server.

Read more here about Microsoft’s storage offerings for SMBs.

In addition, other OEM products include LeftHand Networks’ SAN Filer 150, an undisclosed server from IBM and Tacit Networks’ Ishared solution with WAFS (wide-area file services), branch office IT services and WAN optimization.

Next Page: Over 50 vendors plan to support the new storage server.

Brocade Communication Systems, Fujitsu Siemens Computers and Iomega are among more than 50 software vendors, hardware manufacturers and solutions providers lining up to commit to building on or supporting Windows Storage Server 2003 R2.

Available for both 32- and 64-bit versions, Windows Storage Server 2003 R2’s new features include single-instant storage to enable simplified document finding with text-based file search and built-in collaboration tools within the NAS (network-attached storage) operating system by providing integration with Microsoft SharePoint Services, according to Claude Lorensen, Microsoft group product manager for storage.

Helping to push iSCSI adoption as a cheaper alternative to Fibre Channel among Windows customers, Microsoft is announcing support for a software-based SAN boot of Windows using Microsoft’s iSCSI Software Initiator, and partnerships with several server OEMs and network hardware vendors to deliver the technology.

These partners include Alacritech, Broadcom, EmBoot, IBM, Intel, Fujitsu Siemens Computers and Neterion. A host of others have signed on as well to offer the technology within their products.

Currently beta testing the software, Dickinson Wright’s Hunt said Microsoft has scored a bull’s-eye with its tool by allowing his organization to deploy bootable volumes on remote IBM BladeCenter blade servers in less than 10 minutes.

“Using blade servers and iSCSI SANs has allowed us to build cost-effective disaster recovery capabilities while at the same time benefiting from the environment on a daily basis,” Hunt said.

Going forward with its storage plans, upon the release of Vista, Microsoft will enable customers to visualize all devices on a SAN attached to Windows through a new tool called Storage Explorer.

The tool features monitoring capabilities between servers and devices and can launch storage management for SANs, as well as storage provisioning to enable LUN (logical unit number) creation and expose LUNs to different servers.

For the post-Vista time frame, Lorensen said Microsoft’s storage division is examining integrating content-addressed storage with Microsoft Office to enhance data classification and archiving capabilities.

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