When pressed to allocate more disk space to users, IT managers often turn to a NAS appliance. It’s easy to understand why. A single NAS box, which is easily installed and managed, can consolidate data from multiple servers and reconcile the needs of multiple client OSes with a simple, LAN-based delivery method for files and folders.
Microsoft entered this profitable market not long ago with a simplified, file-serving-focused Windows OS that storage vendors could easily incorporate into their NAS solutions. Initially called Server Appliance Kit (SAK), then Windows Powered NAS (WPN), these products extended to NAS appliances the same generalized OS concept that make Windows so popular.
Understandably, Microsoft’s entry triggered mixed reactions. Dell, Fujitsu, HP, Iomega, and NEC adopted WPN on their NAS appliances; others, including Network Appliance and Snap Appliance maintained and extended their own solutions.
WPN-based NAS nevertheless carved out a significant share of the NAS market in a relatively short time. With that in mind, the planned September release of the next version of Microsoft’s NAS OS, dubbed Windows Storage Server (WSS) 3.0, is being met with great expectations. From what I’ve seen, most of those expectations will be fulfilled.
WSS 3.0 is based on Windows Server 2003 and inherits the better performance and increased storage awareness of that OS while maintaining the successful characteristics of its predecessors: easy management; support for multiple file-sharing and networking protocols; and — judging from storage vendors’ acceptance — simple, cost-contained deployment.
I received WSS 3.0 preinstalled on a white box, a plain vanilla, entry-level NAS appliance. The real WSS NAS solutions are likely to be based on different, more powerful hardware, as Microsoft supplies WSS not to the general public but to OEMs and business partners that will presumably include the license cost on their final products.
My first impressions of WSS are decidedly positive. The administrative GUI is easily reached from a Web browser, and enforcing secure connections triggers the exchange of a security certificate with every client. I was able to confine administrative access to specific IP addresses, which comes in handy when isolating user traffic from management activities on hardware with multiple network interface cards (NICs).
The GUI has wizards for most tasks, including configuring network parameters, defining shares and users, and running management reports.
However, the GUI doesn’t help with activities such as preparing shares for Novell NetWare clients or managing volumes. For those, administrators will have to use Windows administration tools and link to the appliance via Remote Desktop connection (a handy icon for this is on the GUI menu).
Preparing the appliance was quick and easy: I modified the IP addresses and network names to be consistent with my LAN, then defined a few shares on the appliance volumes, and added test users to WSS. For this simple configuration, I created test users from scratch, but WSS can easily integrate with the Active Directory domain of existing servers, further streamlining user management.
WSS supports sharing protocols that give access to Apple, Linux, Microsoft, NetWare, and Unix clients. Administrators can define shares retrievable via HTTP and FTP, an appropriate action for giving access to remote users or unsupported clients. For example, I was able to open an HTTP-enabled share from Netscape Navigator on a Linux machine.
When creating a share, the WSS GUI offers a handful of very useful options that improve reliability and to simplify managing users’ files. To minimise disruptions when moving a user directory elsewhere, for instance, new shares can be published to a distributed file system (DFS) root, which preserves users’ access to their files.
Because WSS is based on Windows Server 2003, it supports shadow copies for shared folders — again, an option driven from the GUI — which allows users to recover previous versions of a file. That’s a much-needed feature if a file is mistakenly deleted or damaged.
WSS also has powerful tools that help administrators control their NAS. Built-in reports give an administrator a summary of storage resource information such as the number of files, the space required for backup, and a breakdown by file type. More detailed reports can pinpoint duplicate files as well as large, rarely accessed files and files that are never backed up.
Administrators also have more proactive tools to corral users’ behavior, such as setting quotas to limit the amount of space used and defining policies to block specific file extensions. It took me only minutes to create policies that stopped my test users from saving executable files to a shared folder.
By the end of this first experience with WSS, the only major downside was that some of its new features were not reviewable on the white box. For example, the iSCSI protocol or Fibre Channel (FC) adapters can extend the capacity of a NAS appliance beyond the size of its internal drives, but my test machine’s hardware didn’t offer those options.
Some of those features should become visible when storage vendors bind more resourceful hardware to WSS 3.0. Activating other features will probably require Microsoft partners to tune their applications to the new OS.
Still, I liked what I saw in WSS 3.0. It combines good security, powerful administration tools, and support for major sharing protocols, which can make a NAS appliance very easy to use and manage.