A One-box Upgrade for Small Business IT part 3 – Exploring Windows Storage Spaces

The WD Sentinel DS5100/6100 is a compact file server system from disk drive manufacturer Western Digital (WD), designed for the Small- to Medium-sized Business (SMB). The DS5100/6100 comes with Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Essentials and has the upgraded hardware features needed to support this full-fledged server OS, making it an ideal ‘first server’ for the SMB market. In this, our third installment, we’ll look at storage, monitoring and server management, and discuss who should consider this product for their small business IT environment.

Storage

With all the functionality this small business server has, you might forget that for most companies its primary job will be to provide network-based file services. The WD Sentinel DS5100/6100 has a capacity of 4 x 4TB SATA drives, tray-less drives, which makes it simple to add and replace drives on the fly. It also has 6 x USB ports for external storage, so the storage management features it has are very important to its overall mission, which centers around Windows Storage Spaces.

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Fig 1 – WD Sentinel DS6100 Small Business Server

Storage Spaces

When you first set up your drives the DS5100/6100 gives you the option of RAID (RAID 0,1,5 or 10) or using Storage Spaces. Candidly, I first selected RAID and then chose RAID 5 using all four disks that were available. That brought up the familiar Windows Disk Management utility which Microsoft has used for years. But as I read more about Storage Spaces I decided to use that instead and blew away the RAID group I had set up.

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Storage Spaces is a storage configuration and management utility that lets you create resilient, virtual storage volumes without setting up a RAID group for each one. With Storage Spaces you first create storage pools, which are comprised of physical drives. I chose to use all 4 of the data drives in the unit and set them up in a parity configuration. This gave me the RAID protection I originally was after but with a lot more versatility.

When you create a Storage Space you choose the storage pool to carve it out of, set the capacity, pick the level of resiliency (2-way mirror, 3-way mirror, a parity scheme or no resiliency) and it does the rest. With Storage Spaces you can set up multiple virtual drives, each with a different level of protection, like parity for user files, a mirror for critical company data and a “simple volume” (no resiliency) for scratch space. Storage Spaces also does deduplication and thin provisioning automatically, ‘big box’ features that increase storage efficiency and expand the effective capacity of the system.

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Fig 2 –Storage Spaces configuration

External Storage

You can also create a Storage Space using external drives through the six USB ports, expanding the capacity of storage the system can manage. This is also a good way to consolidate the data stored on drives that are directly attached to users’ computers. Creating a server folder on that external drive lets users share its data, but allows that folder to be included in the DS5100/6100’s regular backup. Then, that folder can be moved over to the server’s internal storage down the road without disrupting its availability to users. This consolidation process is shown in the video.

Server Health Monitoring and Client Computer Management

The DS5100/6100 with Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials has some very comprehensive monitoring features for client computers and the server itself. The “Monitor” tab on the dashboard provides server hardware configuration and status data for networking, disk drive components, power supplies, plus environmental information for anything that gets hot. This server-class functionality is in keeping with the first server theme we’ve seen throughout the test drive. Users can also access Windows Performance Monitor and manage their WD Guardian support subscription and software updates from this tab as well.

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Fig 3 – System Monitor tab

The monitoring functions that are available in the “Devices” tab allow the IT person to see all the computers in the business and do an effective job of managing them with a reasonable amount of effort. For Microsoft OS clients it lets you keep track of the update status of the software, the backup status and any alerts that Windows can pick up. Plus it gives you a one-touch remote access to client machines (via Remote Desktop) and the ability to manage client backups. In keeping with the product’s first server role, Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials also provides ‘Best Practices’ suggestions on certain operational tasks that come up, a useful feature for many SMBs.

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Fig 4 – Devices tab for Client Computer Monitoring

For non-IT people it will take a little time to work through the issues that the system brings up but everything is linked to TechNet and the entries that I went through are effective and understandable, for the most part. Also, you can turn off any of the alerts that you’re not concerned about so they don’t clutter up the Dashboard. Overall, the server’s client computer monitoring functionality does give you the peace of mind of knowing your environment is configured the right way or if something is out of whack.

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Applications

Office 365

This is Microsoft’s cloud-based Office applications suite, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, SharePoint, Exchange, etc. More and more companies in the SMB space are choosing a cloud-based service over installing and maintaining software on every client computer. Since the licensing and support for these desktop productivity applications used to be managed by local IT, it’s appropriate that users’ Office 365 accounts can be managed on the server, which can also store the shared files they use.

Window Azure

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials also offers integration with Azure, the cloud platform that runs Skype, Office 365, Xbox, etc. for Microsoft. While this online service would be used primarily for web hosting, it provides cloud backup for the DS5100/6100. Integration does require creating certifications and some steps that the non-IT SMB user would need some help with. But the point here is that Microsoft and WD have made this powerful resource available and easy to manage from the server, for businesses that need to leverage it, or may already be using Azure.

Add-ins

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials also supports a large number of third-party applications that can be integrated into the server. Available through Microsoft’s Pinpoint portal, these include business process software, communications, industry-specific applications, personal productivity tools, etc. For a small business, the ability to consolidate these services is important of a first server.

Who Should Consider this Product

WD has targeted this product at the SMB segment, specifically to those companies that have a VAR or consultant providing IT services. But this is also an excellent replacement for companies that are using Windows Small Business Server. The IT world for small businesses has changed dramatically in the decade since Windows SBS was introduced and Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials has been substantially upgraded as a result. The movement to the cloud, the requirement for remote file access and ‘App Store’ concept for buying business software are SMB trends that this first server is designed to support.

As a full-fledged server operating systems Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials can also run the legacy applications that many small and mid-market businesses still use. Whether they’re running remote branch operations software, an application that’s not available as a cloud service or are just comfortable with the way things are, this platform can let them consolidate their infrastructures easily. Finally, while not its primary focus, the DS5100/6100 can also be set up and run successfully by a small business owner who has very little IT experience.

Storage Swiss Take

IT in the SMB space now encompasses more than just a little file storage and backup. These companies need a domain controller and way to manage their client computer assets, plus integration with the cloud, because more and more software applications are becoming available as on-line services. But they also need a file server platform to keep up with data sets in the tens of TB that are now common and the ability to run some applications locally, since not everything is available from the cloud. For many companies in the SMB category, they’re looking for their first real server.

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials is Microsoft’s updated file server operating system that’s really designed to address this ‘first server’ use case – and it does a good job. It’s easy to configure and operate and has more functionality than most businesses will need. Plus, the integration with Microsoft’s cloud-based services and on-line portal for buying new applications should help keep it ahead of demand as the company grows.

Western Digital has launched the WD Sentinel DS5100/6100 line of ultra-compact storage servers to compliment the WD Sentinel DX and RX line of network storage servers. The WD Sentinel DS- Series offers the horsepower and connectivity plus the uptime, monitoring and management features that a real server requires. But they’ve also made it easy to set up, easy to use and powerful enough to grow with the company. The DS5100/6100 can meet the needs of a range of users, from the business owner with little IT experience to the professional system administrator who runs Windows servers every day.

Western Digital is a client of Storage Switzerland

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Eric is an Analyst with Storage Switzerland and has over 25 years experience in high-technology industries. He’s held technical, management and marketing positions in the computer storage, instrumentation, digital imaging and test equipment fields. He has spent the past 15 years in the data storage field, with storage hardware manufacturers and as a national storage integrator, designing and implementing open systems storage solutions for companies in the Western United States.  Eric earned degrees in electrical/computer engineering from the University of Colorado and marketing from California State University, Humboldt.  He and his wife live in Colorado and have twins in college.

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