Microsoft has made some recent bets on storage management. That is good news for me for a variety of reasons. First, it offers a glimpse of my HDTV future. What? Yes, you read that correctly. I’ll get to the explanation in a little bit. Second, it means our customers will have a broader range of storage support in Microsoft products.
One of the recent acquisitions we made was from String Bean Software. We acquired their WinTarget iSCSI Target software. I don’t know all of the details of the contract so I can’t cite the terms. The acquisition brings some fascinating technology to the Windows Server 2003 platform. With any luck, we’ll see the iSCSI Target code show up in all of the Microsoft server products. I have my fingers crossed.
Introduction and History
You might be asking yourself what the hell is iSCSI, an Initiator, or a Target? Well, most of you are probably familiar with SCSI. It’s been around for over a decade and most likely you’ve used a SCSI CDROM. In the early days, the 5meg speeds of SCSI were perfectly fast enough for the CDROMS and hard disk drives of the mid-1980s. But as hard disk and optical drive technologies got faster, SCSI needed to evolve.
As disk drives got faster, and as more disk drives could be coupled together to service I/O requests, bigger pipes were needed to transfer the data. Fibre systems were developed to handle the large I/O bandwidth needs typical to clustered database and messaging systems. Fibre Channel fabrics provide a highly scalable and path redundant mesh desired in storage network back-ends. The downside to fibre based systems is the cost and complexity to implement. This makes the entry point too expensive for a small or medium business (typically).
Fortunately, lower cost networking technologies burst on the scene right around the year 2000. Gigabit Ethernet (also known as 1000Base-T, GbE or GigE) uses standard Category 5 or Category 6 cable. Today, you can buy GigE switches and network cards at modest prices. I use multi-port gigabit nics in all of my servers. I pay a “little” extra to save a PCI slot by doing that, but it comes in handy.
iSCSI hasn’t been around that long. The standard was ratified in 2003. iSCSI rides on top of the ethernet and TCP/IP protocols and uses them for data transfer. iSCSI implementations use Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) ethernet. You can build an iSCSI based SAN out of some relatively cheap hardware components. On the software side, Microsoft is providing some of the components for free. Let’s take a look at what you can get your hands on right now, so that you can start testing the technology.
Windows Server 2003 R2 shipped with a new SAN Management console. If you’ve been to any of the in-person TechNet Seminars here in the USA, you see us demo that console. How in the world do we demo a SAN inside a virtual machine? Smoke and mirrors of course! Actually we are using an internally written service to simulate either a fibre channel attached rack of disks, or an iSCSI connected rack of disks. I’m told the programs we use are on the MSDN download center, but I don’t have a subscription so I cannot confirm that. Look for simhwprv.exe and simiscsiprv.exe. Those programs are mostly just stub programs so they can’t be used for anything real. But as a training or developer tool, they are rather useful.
However, there is a ton of stuff that is highly useful. First, go grab the Microsoft iSCSI Initiator. You can install this component on our most popular operating systems and use it to consume data from an iSCSI Target computer. If you are running Windows Vista, you’ll notice the iSCSI Initiator is already built into the product and the UI sits off an applet in control Panel. I had planned to capture a demo on that, but Vista doesn’t seem to like Camtasia right now (with the build I’m running). I’ll get that demo captured eventually and will update the links below.
Next you are going to want to grab the Microsoft iSNS Server. Think of the iSNS server like you would a DNS server. It is used for discovery and management of iSCSI devices on a network. iSCSI clients query the iSNS discovery domains for storage nodes and portals.
And lastly, you’ll want an iSCSI Target. If you are purchasing a SAN solution from a storage vendor, most likely they’ve engineered the iSCSI Target into their solution. You can see a list of iSCSI Initiators and Targets at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ISCSI. Unfortunately, you won’t see a bunch of free Windows iSCSI targets listed.
I’m hopeful we’ll make WinTarget available for download soon. Soon is of course relative. The press release on microsoft.com says, “Going forward, Microsoft will not sell WinTarget as a stand-alone solution, but will release the WinTarget technology with Windows Storage Server 2003 R2. Additional details on product availability will be provided in the coming months.” This of course means Windows Storage Server R2 is a possible candidate for our iSCSI Target implementation. I would imagine it’s going through a code review as we speak and it will take a few months before that process is complete. So hang tight.
Think about all of the types of data that are popular and prevalent today. In cubes of the USA we are all too familiar with spreadsheets, documents, email, databases, etc. But think about the data types used outside the corporate cube maze.
Many of us have digital cameras, iPods, Video cameras, Home Theatre PCs, etc. Think about how much storage space is consumed by all of those rich data types. How do you manage the storage sprawl today? How do you plan your growth? How do you migrate unused data to other slower cheaper storage media types?
Doesn’t that sound just like a business? Heck, I was talking about my house! I have about a terabyte of virtual machine images. I have close to two terabytes of HDTV recordings. With HDTV recordings clocking in at about 8–10gig per hour of programming, is there any wonder?
We have a modest collection of pictures and music, but my ripped DVD collection is growing. I think it’s hovering around 300gig right now. All of that data is across multiple internal and external hard drives. I have some friends that have some amazing music collections. Thousands of albums in ripped form.
That is going to change…
Think about having a home, home office or small business server with all of that digital goo on an array of disks. That home server could be a multi purpose machine. It could be a firewall, parental control and desktop policy machine, HDTV CableCard recording monster, file server, game image server or whatever. We are constantly thinking about the emerging trends. No promises for a product release, but you would expect us to be testing the waters, right?
Considering Windows Vista has a built-in iSCSI initiator, the client side plumbing is there. We just need some server side integration, and we’re good to go. This is really more than just a storage area network device.
I’m going to do several demos. The first demo is the Storage Management for SANS (SMfS) demo. This will give you an idea of what is already in Windows Server 2003 R2 in case you want to build your own SAN and use our console. It’s a quicky (8 minutes).
See mms://wm.microsoft.com/ms/inetpub/keithcombs/SMfS.wmv for the SMfS demo.
The next demo will show you how to setup the Microsoft iSNS Server, String Bean WinTarget iSCSI Target and the Microsoft iSCSI Initiator for Windows Server 2003. Keep in mind the WinTarget product no longer exists and it does not have a SKU. I am using it for demo purposes only. As soon as I can get my hands on a non-NDA iSCSI Target implementation of our software, I’ll probably re-record the demos.
See mms://wm.microsoft.com/ms/inetpub/keithcombs/iSCSI.wmv for the iSCSI demo.
NOTE: I am having some issues getting Camtasia Recorder to capture the iSCSI Initiator demo inside Windows Vista with the build of Vista I used to create a VM. The iSCSI demo works nicely in Vista, I just can’t show you yet so you are just going to have to trust me (grin). When I get the capture done, I’ll add the link here.
Storage consumption or use is growing at a rapid pace. Easy access from a wide variety of client operating systems and devices is necessary. Small and Medium business owners don’t have big bucks to shell out for a fancy fibre channel based Storage Area Network (SAN). We need to build the plumbing and infrastructure to make “Simple SAN” and iSCSI successful, affordable, easy to use, reliable and pervasive. Microsoft is making some strategic investments in those areas.
Start your training and testing now. Use the virtual machine technologies to test the products and your designs. As soon as we make a iSCSI target publicly available, I’ll come back and update this post.
Essential Reading and References
Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 – http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/wss2003/default.mspx
Boot from SAN Whitepaper – http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/wss2003/techinfo/plandeploy/BootfromSANinWindows.mspx
Microsoft Storage Technologies – iSCSI http://www.microsoft.com/WindowsServer2003/technologies/storage/iscsi/default.mspx
iSCSI Cluster Support FAQ – http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/technologies/storage/iscsi/iscsicluster.mspx
SAN Integration Technologies – http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserversystem/storage/sansupport.mspx