Microsoft is not a company that immediately comes to mind when one thinks about storage, but then as the company has made a presence in so many parts of the IT environment it’s scarcely surprising that it’s eyeing the growing market for storage with enthusiasm.

However, Zane Adam, the director for product management and marketing for Microsoft’s enterprise storage division, thinks that we’re mistaken if we think that the company and storage are strange bedfellows. “If you think about it, we’ve been working with SAN vendors for years. With a SAN, you need a server in front of it, and a lot of data is accessed from Windows. But then storage is also a file server and we’ve been in the file server business for the past 10 years or so”

For the past 18 months, Microsoft has put that business on a solid foundation and created its own storage division. We had to create such a division, claims Adam, it was something that was becoming more and more important for our customers.

He says that storage represents a huge cost to business. “According to some studies, about 22 to 30 percent of IT budget is spent on storage - that includes equipment, managing storage, and people. There was a study done by one of the universities (Berkeley or MIT) that in the next four or five years we’re going to produce as much data as we produced in the whole of the last century.”

He says that there are multiple reasons why the demand for storage keeps on going up. “For example, there’s the growing requirement for regulation, in the US and, now in the EU, where communities have to keep their emails and other records for a number of years.” But he says that this doesn’t just drive up the requirement for storage, but, what’s really important, intelligent recovery.”

One way of dealing with that demand for storage is consolidation. “What’s been happening,” he says, “is that when a customers have a need for more storage, they’ll buy another server; when they need even more storage, they’ll buy another server – all of a sudden, you’ll have 50 or 60 servers and you’ll need multiple people to manage those servers. There’s an average of one administrator to about 15 servers. So, if you 50 or 60 servers, then you have four people managing them.”

The latest fruit of the division is the new NAS product, the Windows Storage Server 2003. This is being released to OEMs this month and scheduled to be released to end users in September.

Adam describes the product in some detail. “The core is Windows 2003, but what we do then is to turn off the services that we don’t need and start modifying the product. For example, you can’t run applications on it, it’s purely optimised for the function of file serving. Then we take it to our OEMs – you can’t get it direct from Microsoft – and then we work with their engineers to optimise the products for the hardware, as reliability is not just the software but is the whole solution. Finally, the partner adds application for ease of management on top.”

He enthuses particularly about two new developments. “Firstly, we’ve added volume shadow copy service.”

This is a step forward from the snapshot approach. Adam explains that the problem with snapshot is that a server has no idea that while is snapshot is being taken, the server has no idea what’s happening. So, if a transaction happens during that snapshot, then what goes back is corrupt..

He says that Microsoft has got a new approach. It has developed an API, virtual shadow copy service (VSS). “VSS will make a request to Exchange make sure that data is pristine and then the snapshot takes place. So the application is storage aware for the first time.”

He adds that “the second change that we’ve made is virtual disk service. This is an important concept, it’s something that the end user won’t see but the administrator will love it. Assume there are two SANS: today, you have to go to each server and do management on each one. By using VDS, you can manage not just another SAN, but all the servers that sit on the other SAN. So we are enabling multi-vendor SAN support, and reducing the complexity of managing them.”

Adam says that there were three goals with the development of the new product: making Windows the best storage platform; working with a partner ecosystem by creating a platform for our partners can write applications; and the introduction of Microsoft-based storage products, such as the Storage Server 2003 product.

There are other features of the new product. It has been designed for simplicity of management,” he says, “There are products out there where, for every dollar that you spend on buying the product, you spend five dollars managing it.”

“We’ve also made sure that it works in a heterogeneous environment. We’ve designed a product for ease of integration within the enterprise” He says that this is very important. “We support all platforms, with our product you can have one file that can be accessed by each one of those platforms.

Whether Microsoft can penetrate this market remains to be seen. Adam is confident, although he won’t give any predictions. He claims that the company has 38 percent of the NAS market at the moment, “based on Gartner numbers.” And although he says that the return on investment is increasingly important to CIOs when it comes to justifying their purchases, he avoids the question of the ROI if the Microsoft server.

Still, no-one can accuse him of not living and breathing storage. He reveals that in his own home, he has multi-Terabyte storage as his requirements are lapping up data. This is a guy who certainly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to determining demand.