Microsoft is set to ship a continuous data-protection software product that allows users to back up storage continuously. The System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) will back up data on Windows file servers and network-attached storage (NAS) devices as a series of as many as 64 snapshots.

The company said It differed from many other continuous data-protection products in that it allows end users to recover data. DPM runs on a server and backs up data from local or remote file servers. It saves the data to its attached disk storage for later archiving to tape

"Products like DPM absolutely pose a competitive threat to pure-play storage independent software vendors (ISV)," says David Freund, an analyst for Illuminata.

Microsoft's storage efforts bring to mind the company's inroads into other markets, such as anti-virus and anti-spam, where it initially looked not to be a direct competitor to current vendors. Microsoft won't reveal how much money or how many people it is devoting to storage, but observers say it is significant.

DPM represents the third tenet of Microsoft's storage strategy, according to Ben Matheson, a Microsoft product manager. "The first is to make Windows the best platform for storage," Matheson says. "The second is to work with storage partners to create a broad storage ecosystem." The third is to introduce new storage offerings.

The company initiated its storage efforts in 2000 with the introduction of Server Appliance Kit, now known as Windows Storage Server. The kit gave systems manufacturers tools with which to develop NAS systems for Windows networks. Windows-based NAS systems swelled from practically no market share to 41 percent within two years, cutting into the share of vendors whose offerings are based on proprietary software, according to Gartner. Dell, HP and EMC are among the 19 vendors now making NAS systems to Microsoft's specifications.

"Microsoft's storage technologies - Virtual Shadow Copy Service and Multipath I/O - have been largely complementary to other vendors' products," Illuminata's Freund says. Virtual Shadow Copy Service automates the backup of network volumes; Multipath I/O lets vendors offer Windows-based multiple path redundancy between host computers and their storage-area network devices.

Unlike that software, DPM is seen as a direct competitor to offerings from companies such as Symantec (which recently acquired Veritas), Computer Associates and start-ups such as Mendocino Software and Mimosa Systems, and storage resource-management vendors AppIQ and Creekpath.

Microsoft has a history of cooperating with storage ISVs. For instance, its NTbackup Tape Backup Utility, which shipped with Windows NT and 2000, was a repackaged and stripped-down version of Veritas' Backup Exec software.

But that relationship could crumble as the company reaches further into storage.

"Microsoft is increasing its 'coopetition' with partners," Freund says.

Analysts and users say Microsoft could prove particularly competitive in small and midsize business storage networks.

"Most (such) Microsoft shops will look to Microsoft for a solution first instead of introducing another layer of complexity" by bringing in another vendor, says Ron Hawkins, senior technical architect for Harvard University.

As DPM matures and gains functionality, however, it could rival enterprise network-class products from vendors such as EMC and IBM, observers say. The continuous data-protection market is in its infancy but has attracted lots of players, including Network appliance and start-up TimeSpring.

"When DPM can back up applications and databases, then it's time (for other vendors) to worry," says Stephanie Balaouras, senior analyst for The Yankee Group. "Then it becomes applicable to the mid-market, 500-plus employee organisations, where Microsoft is the dominant operating system."

But DPM will not eliminate the need for other back-up and recovery products, says Randy Kerns, an independent analyst.

"They will still be used for tape backups, but not as many or as often," he says.

Microsoft's Matheson says DPM will support Microsoft Exchange, SQL Server, server imaging, and recovery of files on users' desktop drives in the second release, due in two years.

Microsoft is expected to integrate more storage resource management capabilities into its products, analysts say. The company has included a thin version of Veritas' storage resource management software in Windows Storage Server 2003. And, sources say that Windows Server 2003 R2 will include storage resource-management software from Veritas.