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TechnologyAug 19, 2013

Windows Server 2012 R2 Storage Spaces Presents Cost-Effective Competition to SAN Storage

Paul Bell

If you are considering an EMC, NetApp, Compellent or other SAN solution, it’s time to consider something better and cheaper. Take a look at Windows Server 2012 R2.  When combined with shared SAS JBOD, SMB 3.0, and an RDMA network it offers better performance for storage at almost half the cost of industry leading SAN solutions.

There are many core offerings of SANs, and Microsoft has an answer for every one of them:

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Major Improvements

The biggest improvement in my opinion is automated tiering.  For most storage systems, capacity is no longer a problem.  It is simple to cram in a single 4 TB drive or buy a few cheap and reliable 1 TB enterprise class drives and immediately have more breathing room on your storage server.  The problems creep up when you realize how many people and demanding services are hitting that single array.  Array performance, disk latency, and IOPs quickly become bottlenecks.  In the past this was dealt with by adding spindle—many, many spindles—to the array to increase performance.  Within the past few years vendors have been offering flash-based modules to their SANs at an outrageous mark-up to speed up reads of ‘hot’ data.

Automated tiering in Windows Server 2012 R2 Storage Spaces diminishes and eliminates the advantages of a SAN solution when performance is required.  The typical response to “I need more performance” from your SAN vendor would be “you need to add a shelf” (for $50,000).  With 2012 R2 the answer is “throw a couple $1,000 SSDs in the mix.” New disks, whether they are SSD or HDD, are dynamically provisioned and allocated with Storage Spaces.  No downtime is needed when you upgrade disks and pools.  Configure SSD caching on your HDD pool, or build a dedicated SSD pool for your demanding applications.

Don’t express concern with line #4 in the table regarding high availability.  Arguably, buying a shared JBOD defeats the cost savings purpose of Storage Spaces.  But, a SAS JBOD with dual controllers costs significantly less per TB than a full-fledged SAN.  In real terms, we are talking about $300-400 per TB vs. $1500-$3000+ per TB!

Opportunities to Improve

Snapshots are comparable to many SAN vendors’ offerings, but the SAN offerings go deeper than simple snapshots.  BCV (Business Continuance Volume), volume cloning, and array level mirroring are features that Microsoft has yet to implement.

While I don’t think Distributed File System (DFS) comes close enough to replicating 10s of terabytes across physical sites as efficiently as the big SAN solutions do, for most small and medium enterprise customers it can be sufficient.  On the plus side for Storage Spaces, in order to implement a DR storage site, you need to buy a second SAN.  DFS replication begins to look very attractive when compared to doubling the SAN purchase.

Final Words

Windows Server 2012 R2 absolutely needs to be considered as a cost-saving, value-adding storage solution for any size enterprise.  Storage Spaces goes beyond software RAID of the Windows Disk Management past.  Significant yields in performance, administration, and scale are now baked in to your server OS.  Don’t let the SAN enterprise sales representative convince you these features are for small businesses or dev/test environments only. Microsoft has dramatically raised the bar with its newest release.

If it is time to upgrade from local disk storage or a small NAS and you are worried about the price tag of a SAN, or if it is time to replace your SAN due to capacity/performance/licensing limitations or warranty expiration, please reach out to Credera’s Infrastructure Practice to assess your needs.  We can implement it quickly and effectively with Windows Server 2012 R2.  Contact us online, through Twitter, or on my LinkedIn page.

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