System Area Networks Are New Approach to NT Clustering

Microsoft Corp. has devised an approach to clustering for Windows 2000 that company officials say should make data exchange fast enough for enterprise use. Microsoft recently announced a Windows Socket/System Area Network (WinSock/SAN) initiative with Compaq Computer Corp. that will link the WinSock API and SAN interconnect technology.

Building a system area network entails linking multiple computers on a low-latency, high-bandwidth network, says Karan Khanna, lead product manager for Windows NT Server. Microsoft and Compaq refer to such a system area network as a SAN, although standard usage of the acronym refers to storage area networks.

WinSock/SAN is quick due to a bypassing of the operating system’s TCP/IP stack. Communication bounces directly from WinSock to the hardware. Microsoft will be working with hardware vendors on a driver specification. "The main advantage is clustering. When you use this to put computers together, it's faster because the communications bypass the operating system," Khanna says. The technology is faster than local area networks, he says.

Application developers shouldn’t notice a change. They will continue to write to the WinSock API, giving the new approach backward compatibility with existing applications.

Andy Wachs, director of product management for Compaq's ServerNet Group, predicts WinSock/SAN will provide the confidence needed for enterprise deployment of NT for scalability. "There needs to be some capability in the Windows NT environment for clustering high speed," Wachs says. "As Windows 2000 comes out, [administrators] can now see the advantages of clustering in terms of scalability just like there is now in high availability."

The solution the two companies have come up with, however, is exactly what the enterprise doesn't need, according to analyst Dan Kusnetzky of International Data Corp. (IDC, "It may be faster, but it also sounds like it's not interoperable with other solutions," Kusnetzky says. "Speed while sacrificing interoperability may seem like a good choice, but if your solutions can't come from different vendors with different systems, it can't make it in the enterprise."

Kusnetzky contends that the whole solution fits the mindset of Microsoft, which follows a functional server approach instead of a multifunctional server approach. For example, instead of buying one large server, enterprise data centers have to buy 30 to 40 machines, requiring up to six people a shift to manage them. By Kusnetsky's math, that adds up to around $18 million a year in administration costs for a 24-hour data center, as opposed to $3 million a year to operate a multifunctional server.

"Microsoft's future concept of the data center is smaller and less capable than what the Unix vendors are offering now," Kusnetzky argues. "No one in their right mind would abandon their investments to move to a system that does the same thing and doesn't even provide any financial benefits. This [initiative] certainly isn't helpful if Microsoft is trying to be an enterprise software provider."

Compaq will provide hardware for the initiative. A demonstration coinciding with the announcement in Redmond, Wash., last month ran on Compaq's ProLiant server and ServerNet hardware.

A beta version of WinSock/SAN will be out later this year with a general release planned shortly after Windows 2000 comes out. Microsoft's Khanna says WinSock/SAN will not work with earlier versions of NT.