Windows Server 2012 R2 Versus Entry level NAS Devices for SMB Customers
A frequent topic that has been raised with the Australian OEM team recently is how you should approach conversations where the customer thinks that a cheap NAS device may suit their requirements rather than delivering a Windows Server based solution, so in the inaugural post for this blog I'll cover some of the reasons that make Windows Server a smarter choice. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it helps to address some of the common questions that are raised.
While the functionality of many NAS devices has increased drastically over the years, with many of them now including apps that perform common tasks, you are often limited by the capabilities of these apps, as well as their performance. Windows Server has been able to run multiple workloads, from basic file and print, to Active Directory, databases, web sites and more, with support from the major line of business application vendors in the marketplace. Generally if one of these NAS devices has software available to perform a certain task, Windows Server does as well, but NAS devices don't have the rich software ecosystem that Windows Server has had for many years.
Low end NAS devices are usually limited by a couple of hardware selections that were made to meet a price point and to perhaps meet a low power requirement, but these tradeoffs can have an impact on performance. If you are thinking about some of the apps that are available for them, and get maximum throughput from these devices, you may find that's just not possible. Expandability is often answered by upgrading to a more powerful device due to the inability to do any real hardware upgrades. Windows Server, on the other side, can be scaled up by adding more RAM, disks, faster CPUs etc. to existing configurations, as well as being able to scale out across multiple servers depending on the requirements of the customer.
If a customer running Windows Server needs to change from Gigabit Ethernet to 10 Gigabit Ethernet, they can just add new network adapters to the server. If they want to add or pair more network adapters they only need to use the PCI-E slots that are inside of the server, allowing cheap upgrades that don't require the deployment of whole new systems, and potentially new management tools and procedures to make things work. Windows Server 2012 introduced support for SMB multichannel, which allows traditional SMB networking to scale as new network adapters are added, without requiring complex configuration or switch changes to be made.
Windows Server running Hyper-V for virtualisation provides an easy to use solution that allows you to run multiple workloads, even different operating systems, on the same hardware simultaneously. Windows Server versions from 2003 to 2012 R2 are supported, Windows client editions from Windows Vista onwards, and even multiple versions of Linux from CentOS and Red Hat, Debian, Oracle, SUSE and Ubuntu. Management of Hyper-V is easily performed from your Windows 7 and Windows 8.x based PCs, with an easy to use GUI tool, or via PowerShell for the more adventurous. The other thing that I think needs to be broadcast further and louder is that Windows 8 and 8.1 Professional also have Hyper-V support, making it easier for you to learn the skills on your own PC without necessarily needing to invest in a server just to learn what's involved.
Windows Server 2012 introduced a Storage Spaces, which brings many SAN like features into the storage subsystem. This goes way beyond the typical RAID 0 or RAID 5 options presented by many SMB NAS devices, and supports features such as data deduplication, storage tiering, where hot data can be moved automatically to SSDs to improve performance, while less common data stays on the traditional spinning disks. You have multiple options for implementing parity as well as duplicate copies of data. These were features that you could previously only find on high end storage devices, but Microsoft has made them available to customers of all sizes.
Active Directory Related Capabilities
For those of you who have previously had to manage customers running in peer to peer environments you know that there are many common tasks that can't be performed once, they need to be performed on a variety of devices. Compare that with Active Directory, where the many benefits include performing a task once and having it reach out across the network, including user account management centralisation, configuration and security policies that can be applied to users and computers, and granular control over who can get access to different resources on servers. The big benefit here for customers is knowing that users should have a consistent, repeatable experience on the network, even if they switch between multiple devices. Group Policy is more relevant than ever in a world where people are becoming increasingly mobile, so leverage the capabilities it provides to deliver a better experience for your customers.
If you are talking to your customers about online services such as Microsoft's Office 365, then the integration experience offered by Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials and higher editions makes new user provision and ongoing user management incredibly easy. If you weren't aware, the Windows Server Essentials Experience is available as a role inside of the Standard and Datacenter editions, so you aren't limited to the 25 users that are included with the Essentials edition. You also get backup integration with online services such as Microsoft Azure to name one.
What About A NAS As A Secondary Backup Device?
From a management perspective, it's better to introduce an additional server that integrates with the existing management tools such as Server Manager in Windows Server 2012 R2. It will inherit the benefits already mentioned above, and slot in as a natural extension of the current environment. Otherwise, there will be a subset of features exposed on the NAS via a different interface versus what Windows Server provides, which can more easily lead to customer confusion.
What About Licensing Requirements?
For customers of 25 users or below, Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials does not require any Client Access Licenses (CALs), so it's only the cost of the server hardware and software that need to be taken into consideration. If the customer needs Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard or Datacenter, they will also need to buy the appropriate CALs for those users. For customers that do have a requirement to run Remote Desktop Services as well as other internal applications, they can take advantage of the two virtual instances of Windows Server that are included with the Standard Edition, or an unlimited number of VMs on the server with Datacenter.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this is not an exhaustive list, but rather the areas where more value can easily be extracted from a Windows Server deployment. Feel free to comment if there are other areas that help you when it comes to having this discussion with your customers.