Storage has always been, as we say in the South, a "big hairy deal" in IT. It's been expensive, temperamental, and always out of date -- seemingly from the moment of purchase. But that appears to be changing, at least in the Windows world. Storage has undergone a reimagining.
Part of the design philosophy behind storage improvements and technologies in Windows Server 2012 was the ability to use commodity-grade hardware rather than going out and paying huge sums of money for big iron, enterprise-grade storage area networks (SANs) and network-attached storage (NAS).
For example, Storage Spaces is a feature in the currently shipping server OS that lets you create pools of physical disks to use for storage. Fault tolerance and expandability is built right in. You can put together a JBOD -- an informal acronym for just a bunch of disks -- and create a pool of storage that you can later expand. Windows handles the striping and error correction among the data on those physical disks, and the storage space itself shows up as a single entity within the OS and to your applications.
It gets better with Windows Server 2012 R2, as Microsoft has put even more emphasis on squeezing performance out of cheap, disposable hardware that fits within most IT budgets. A new feature known as "storage tiering" will allow administrators to use fast but relatively expensive solid-state drives to store data that is very frequently accessed.
These drives can be put into a Storage Spaces pool, and Windows will automatically move files and objects to the SSDs in this tier so that users can get to them very quickly. Files that are accessed less frequently, and files that were previously in the fast tier but are accessed less frequently, can then be automatically moved to a lower speed tier of spinning disks that are cheap and more cost-effective for storing archived data that does not require the fastest access possible.
Additionally, Microsoft has tried to improve the performance of its regular file sharing protocol, Server Message Block (SMB), over regular Ethernet connections. Typically, storage area networks operate over very fast but tremendously expensive interconnects like Fibre Channel or Infiniband. This is because most storage traffic deals in big blocks that were not efficient to transmit.
But in the upcoming Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft has done a lot of work making SMB transmission perform better. Virtual machines can host their virtual hard disk files, or VHDs, on a standard Windows server operating over a simple SMB file share over Ethernet without any noticeable degradation in performance. This opens up a number of opportunities to consolidate virtual machines on cheaper hosts and reduce the investment you are making in expensive storage hardware solely for the purpose of hosting VM workloads.
There is a lot to like about storage in the future of Windows -- it is all about rethinking the traditional wisdom of the kind of storage you need, what that storage should cost, and what sort of performance you get for that money. Put simply, you can get away with cheaper gear that will get you more performance. What's not to like?