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Windows Server 2016 Feature Highlight: Storage Replica

Windows Server 2016 Feature Highlight: Storage Replica
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Microsoft has given us plenty of clues on Windows Server 2016. We're taking a closer look at the new functionality IT admins will be able to take advantage of in the new Windows Server 2016 Storage Replica feature.

Microsoft has been busy over the last couple of months spilling the beans on new features coming in Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016. Between the annual conference lineup (Build and Ignite) and carefully timed pre-conference announcements, Microsoft has given us a peek under the hood of the next version of Windows Server. We're going to take a look back at some of the key features that have become public over the last couple of months and dig into why you should care.

Microsoft's Storage Strategy: Storage Replica

With Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft made strides in its storage game through the introduction of Storage Spaces, which provides RAID-like capabilities, such as fault tolerance, striping, and even storage tiers at the software level. Storage Spaces was a key component in Microsoft's story with the Windows Server 2012 family, providing a storage subsystem which could be automated and managed in large scale cloud implementations.

The storage team at Microsoft strikes again in Windows Server 2016 with the introduction of Storage Replica. Storage Replica provides block-level replication between locations and is intended primarily for disaster prevention, such as the ability to restore service to an alternate data center with minimal downtime or data loss, or even to shift services to an alternate site prior to a disaster occurrence such as a major storm.

Use Cases

A key scenario Microsoft is pushing for with Storage Replica is the concept of stretch clusters, or clusters which are separated over long distances geographically. By leveraging Storage Replica, the cluster storage can be replicated synchronously between sites in order to minimize downtime due to the loss of a corporate data center.

Microsoft did caution about replacing purpose-built replication solutions with Storage Replica and stretch clusters. In particular, services like Active Directory and Exchange Server are built to handle global replication, and Hyper-V Replica and SQL Server AlwaysOn Availability Groups are tailored for a specific use case, so Storage Replication isn't an ideal solution for these scenarios.

Technical Components

Windows Server 2016 supports several replication scenarios within Storage Replica: Server to Server, Cluster to Cluster, or Stretch Cluster. Storage Replica uses block-level, volume based replication. SMB 3.1.1 is leveraged, bringing features such as multichannel, RDMA, encryption, and digital signatures. Database-like transaction logs are used to manage updates to replicas. As files are updated on the master volume, the log is appended and synchronized as appropriate depending on whether synchronous or asynchronous replication is desired.

Flexibility and Management

Storage Replica is volume based, supporting any Windows storage volume utilizing fixed disks. Any disk fabric is supported (Fibre Channel, iSCSI, SAS, etc.), but the disk geometry must be the same due to the replication being block level.

Existing management tools will be able to natively handle Storage Replica, including Failover Cluster Manager, Windows PowerShell, and WMI. The ability to manage Storage Replica using native, familiar tools should ease the implementation process and result in increased efficiency over third party solutions.

Technical Requirements

Naturally there are some technical requirements for implementing Storage Replica. First and foremost is the need for Windows Server 2016 Datacenter Edition. Those familiar with Windows Server licensing will know Datacenter Edition bears the highest cost of any Windows Server SKU, but also unlocks multiple enterprise features such as raising processor and memory thresholds as well as allowing for an unlimited number of guest virtual machines.

Each file server requires a minimum of one 1GbE network connection, though increased network capabilities are desirable. A minimum of 1Gbps throughput between servers is required, though a minimum of 8Gbps is recommended. Additionally, an average of ≤5ms latency between file servers is necessary.

Due to the network-based nature of Storage Replica, a network connection between file servers is necessary. Firewall rules allowing bi-directional ICMP, SMB port 445 (and 5445 for SMB Direct), and port 5985 (WS-MAN) network traffic may be required.

Active Directory is a key requirement of Stretch Clusters with Storage Replica, though it need not be running on Windows Server 2016.

There are clear benefits to having the capability to instantly failover critical services to an alternate site, either prior to or as a result of a disaster. This sort of functionality is currently available from a variety of vendors, but having it baked into the Windows Server platform will add power and flexibility to existing services. With the potential for savings as a result of reduced licensing costs or hardware purchases, the end-to-end storage solutions offered in Windows Server 2016 have the potential to meet all of your enterprise storage needs without breaking the bank.

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