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Windows Branch Office Appliances on the Way

Buried in an unrelated storage announcement this week was a sign that Microsoft is making headway in encouraging a line of branch office appliances built on Windows Server 2003 R2.

"To address the growing needs of branch offices, industry partners such as Brocade, Network Engines Inc. and Tacit Networks Inc. will be offering branch office appliance solutions built on the Windows Server platform," Microsoft said near the bottom of a news release about the launch of Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager and the beta release of Windows Storage Server 2003 R2. In a previous reference to the branch office appliance effort this summer, Microsoft had mentioned only Tacit.

The common thread linking the storage announcements and the branch office appliances is that storage and branch office improvements are major themes of R2, which is expected to be released to manufacturing by the end of this year.

Radhesh Balakrishnan, group product manager of the Windows Server Division, says the branch office appliances will be built on Windows Server 2003 R2 and Internet Security & Acceleration Server, with an emphasis on the Web caching capabilities of the latter product.

According to Balakrishnan, Microsoft, with research assistance from Gartner and IDC, has segmented customers' branch office needs into three size-based scenarios. Micro-branches usually have three or fewer servers and have about 10 users. Mini-branches are generally five-to-10 server shops with up to 50 users and may run line-of-business applications or domain controllers on site. Another type of branch office is classified as mini-data centers, and these offices tend to have their own IT staff.

Microsoft positions Windows Storage Server 2003 as generally meeting the needs of the micro-branches, where file and print is the primary requirement, Balakrishnan says. Mini-data centers, meanwhile, with their full-fledged IT professionals on site, don't generally require specialized products.

Microsoft views the mini-branches, however, as the area most underserved by Microsoft's current product lineup. Windows Storage Server doesn't work in that case because Microsoft has not enabled the server for use as a domain controller or an application server. Meanwhile, the mini-branches typically don't have dedicated IT staff on site to manage more complex server configurations.

Microsoft is working with the OEMs to build "ruggedized, modular hardware form-factors that are suitable for locations where physical security is a concern, and that [address] basic needs around file and Web caching," according to a branch office roadmap on Microsoft's Web site.

Branch office improvements coming in R2 focus primarily on conserving and maximizing WAN bandwidth. They include the new Remote Differential Compression (RDC) algorithm, which replicates only those changes needed to ensure file consistency -- such as a 1-second update for a changed PowerPoint title rather than a 1-minute update to resend the entire 3 MB file. Microsoft developers also replaced the File Replication Service with Distributed File System Replication (DFS-R) for more scalable and efficient file server synchronization. According to Microsoft documentation, DFS-R schedules and throttles replication schemes, supports multiple topologies and uses RemoteData control (RDC) for WAN efficiency.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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