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Microsoft Prepares for Backup Role

Microsoft has had a busy year in storage, in a quiet sort of way. The company partnered with Tacit Networks to offer wide area file services (WAFS) as an add-on to a Windows Storage Server foundation. It added high-end features to its iSCSI initiator. And at last spring's Storage Networking World, it launched the Microsoft Windows Simple SAN Program. The idea is to help Windows customers reduce the cost and complexity of their storage infrastructures by allowing them to easily install, deploy and manage networked storage.

All this activity, however, is about to be eclipsed by a major foray into the land of backup and disaster recovery — with the planned announcement of the release to manufacturers of Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) at September's Storage Decisions conference in New York.

According to Ben Matheson, group product manager in Microsoft's management division, DPM will have an estimated retail price of $950. This includes one DPM Server and the management licenses to protect three file servers.

"This price point helps make enterprise-quality technology affordable to a wider range of businesses," says Matheson. "It also allows partners to deliver a solution to their customers that is a fraction of the cost of other proprietary disk-based backup appliances."

Microsoft characterizes DPM as the first disk-based software solution designed to help companies reduce the time spent on data backup and recovery. Organizations back up their business-critical information onto hard disks, as opposed tape systems, and end users can even retrieve files directly from the desktop — the user can locate his or her own lost files and restore them without the involvement of IT staff. Beta versions of the product are already in wide circulation.

"Customer response to Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager has been incredible since we released the public beta in April," says Matheson. "Over 100,000 copies of DPM have been distributed, including over 50,000 downloads."

He characterizes this as a shift in the market, away from tapes and toward disk-based backup.

A Big Move Into Storage?

By attacking the backup market head on, Microsoft is moving close to the core of the storage marketplace. With a firm beachhead established in backup, the company could potentially stage a full-scale invasion of the field.

"The hottest news from Microsoft storage is the imminent release of Data Protection Server," says John Webster, an analyst with the Data Mobility Group. "DPS integrates with Active Directory, the NTFS file system, Distributed File System (DFS), and Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS), bringing highly integrated ILM-like capabilities to Windows Server System."

A big move into storage by Redmond could shake up the industry. As one measure of Microsoft's might, consider its partner presence. At last month's Worldwide Partner Conference, for instance, 6,500 partners showed up from around the world to be briefed on DPM and other new technologies and programs. They were told that Data Protection Manager will be integrated into the Advanced Infrastructure competency, Systems Management specialization — one of 11 specializations available through the Microsoft Partner Program. As a result, partners will have access to online training, testing and certification and materials to help them effectively market the solution to their customers.

"By joining the Advanced Infrastructure Systems Management competency, Microsoft Solutions Partners will receive tools and resources that will help them audit a customer's existing disaster recovery plan to determine if the existing backup strategy is effective, and identify small to mid-market organizations that are a good candidate for DPM," says Matheson. "We will also be releasing online Web-based training and a Project Guide in the coming months."

SMBs a Target

Microsoft, then, seems to be targeting small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) in particular with this campaign — an area the storage industry as a whole has only recently begun to pay attention to.

"This is a great opportunity for smaller companies to get real protection for their valuable business data," says Matheson. "A shift is going to happen with DPM, and we are seeing tremendous demand for it already."

According to Bill Breslin of Houston-based IT services firm Insource Technology Corp. — who also serves as president of the U.S. board of directors of the International Association of Microsoft Certified Partners — resellers and channel partners will have a real opportunity to expand their own businesses and increase service-level agreements, while at the same time helping customers cut costs.

"In the past when we've talked about data storage products, it's been the real high end of the business world," says Breslin. "DPM will give resellers the opportunity to bring true data protection down to the Ma and Pa shops that just haven't been able to get that before."

DPM works at the byte level, as opposed to the file level where most tape-based software systems operate. With tapes, you're moving the entire file every time you do a backup, and that can be slow if you have massive files such as Access databases, Microsoft PowerPoint files and Outlook .pst files and are trying to move them using low-level hardware and "lite" SMB backup software over a narrow pipe. According to Matheson, some SMB customers have reported that their backup process has gone from two days with tape to 10 minutes with DPM.

Expansive Data Offerings

By adding DPM, Data Mobility Group's Webster believes that Microsoft is well on the way to establishing itself in a distinct class as a provider of storage solutions because it also offers a complement of data creation, management and sharing applications and platforms. The breadth of Microsoft data tools reaches across the full expanse of the company's platforms and products, he says, and its long-term direction is guided by the DSI (Dynamic Systems Initiative), a model for treating all software products, whether installed or embedded, in such a way that the programs themselves are data-rich.

"Microsoft is ahead of the market in facilitating rich and simplified integration of XML and other verbose meta-language capabilities into all of its products," says Webster. "As such, storage and management of new, verbose data remains at the center of the integrated Windows story guided by DSI."

The company is leveraging DSI and other technologies to foster strong bonds with industry partners and the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). Already, more than 200 storage products from a wide range of vendors have been released based on Microsoft features such as VSS, Virtual Disk Service (VDS), iSCSI (Windows Server 2003 was the first OS to enable a standards-based iSCSI initiator to allow a connection between a server and a storage device using an IP network), and Multi-Path Input/Output (MPIO). The broad push is to make storage simpler, make high-end features available to a larger customer base, and make it far easier to manage and protect data in branch or satellite offices.

SMBs — And Then The World!

Microsoft appears to be taking a leaf out of its own playbook with its focus on the SMB segment of the storage marketplace.

After the success of Windows 95, Microsoft gained ground with Windows NT at the low end of the IT service stack and in smaller businesses. It left the enterprise market largely alone until it had a product — Windows Server 2000 — capable of holding its own against enterprise staples built mainly on a UNIX platform. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength in the enterprise.

Similarly in storage, it appears to be quietly working the low end of the market while avoiding a head-on collision against the likes of EMC, CA, Veritas and NetApp — at least for now. That may change, though, if DPM catches fire.

"DPM will cause an awesome amount of confusion in the backup market," says Steve Duplessie, senior analyst and founder of Enterprise Strategy Group.

In his opinion, Microsoft's grand plan is to commoditize and simplify anything and everything to the point where users don't need to spend money on anything but Microsoft stuff.

"Microsoft wants the operating system and their tools to have all the value so that users don't need to go outside of the family," says Duplessie. "It drives Microsoft crazy that people spend a ton of money with EMC and Veritas on boring old storage issues."

For more storage features, visit Enterprise Storage Forum Special Reports