A 'Win-Win-Win' MS Server Solution?

Microsoft's enterprise customers have been slow to upgrade to Windows Server 2003. Could the opportunity to consolidate servers offer the payback they seek?

A new report from research firm Directions on Microsoft says that Windows Server 2003 is a win-win-win product.

Customers can optimize use of hardware, IT staff and physical space by consolidating servers. Microsoft partners can make money by helping businesses with planning and migration. And Microsoft can use the consolidation advantage as a carrot to get customers to move off older but good-enough versions of Windows.

It's not that there is one outstanding improvement to the software that makes Windows Server 2003 worth buying, said the report's lead author, analyst Michael Cherry. As Microsoft adds more and more features, improvements tend to be incremental.

Microsoft made several enhancements to Windows Server 2003 that facilitate consolidating servers for several functions, the report says.

Improved support for network-attached storage and storage area networks lets print and file servers access data efficiently. The Volume Shadow Copy Service, which takes snapshots of stored data, speeds back up and restoration; third-party back-up software and service providers often perform this function.

The Windows System Resource Manager feature pack for Windows Server 2003 Enterprise and Datacenter Edition prevents any application from hogging the server's resources. This and other feature packs, along with products such as OS virtualization software, make consolidation more feasible.

Microsoft improved File Services, Active Directory Services and the IIS Web server, the report said. Changes in the way File Services manages memory internally and transfers files across the network reduce the amount of time it takes for File Services to respond and transfer data to clients. Reduced response time for Active Directory operations can help increase server capacity by letting it process a greater number of transactions.

The Internet Information Services (IIS) Web server better isolates processes, reducing the security risk. However, the report warns, heterogeneous applications running on the same server can interfere with each other, for example, if two of them require different parameters for an underlying service.

"You have to look beyond just the features and look for new applications for the server itself," Cherry said. "We're saying the improvements they made in performance, availability and storage -- all of these little incremental improvements -- add up to a scenario where it finally makes sense to look at server consolidation."

Many companies just threw cheap servers at capacity problems, but this practice leads to management nightmares, as the IT staff struggles with myriad software and hardware configurations. Server consolidation is one element in a more organized, reliable and maintainable IT infrastructure, according to Directions on Microsoft. Consolidating data on fewer servers can improve the opportunity for data mining and analysis.

But there are downsides to consolidation, the report says. The biggest is that failure of one component will have a greater impact, so the company should maintain an appropriate level of redundancy and develop a disaster recovery plan.

The IT staff will need more sophisticated management skills when several different applications run on a single server, and planning downtime for maintenance becomes harder.

Finally, infrastructure such as the network may need upgrading.

Support for 64-bit processors, available in the Enterprise and Datacenter Editions, will let companies take advantage of the increased speed available for data crunching. Windows Server 2003 addresses up to 512GB of memory. Microsoft is pushing 64-bit computing as a way to provoke the market for hardware and OS upgrades.

However, Directions on Microsoft said there's no indication that other server software, such as Exchange, BizTalk or Microsoft Operations Manager, will exploit 64-bit processing, which will limit the benefits businesses get.

"One of the frustrations with Microsoft is their roadmaps are incredibly vague," Cherry said. "Mr. Gates stood up at the WinHEC conference and said to everybody, 'Do 64-bit device drivers. We think 64-bit is going to be important.' Thank you, Mr. Gates, but the rest of your company doesn't seem to think it's as important."

Cherry called on the company to provide definitive guidelines for whether and when it will move software to 64-bit.

Cherry cautioned that consolidation and migration to Windows Server 2003 is no easy task. The organization must determine which applications are running on which servers, identify potential incompatibilities, the resource requirements of each application and the appropriate systems management procedures and tools.

Then, the company should consider organizational issues such as how to charge back departments or lines of business for server use. Finally, it should map out the steps required to perform the actual consolidation. This is the sweet spot for VARs and partners.

"You want to have somebody who's done it before, you don't want to be pioneering," said Cherry. "It's a very worthwhile investment to work with a partner who had handled consolidation before."

Cherry said Microsoft Partners looking for a sector that will be lucrative for a few years would do well to gain expertise and credentials in server consolidation.

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