Look What Windows Can Do

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From the outset, Microsoft designed Windows Server 2003 to be everything to everyone. After all, the product has more networking features than Paris Hilton has medical excuses. Yet, there are times when feature overload leads to unnecessary complexities. Simply put, Windows Server 2003 has become a jack-of-all-trades, but when deployed on a single server, the product becomes a master of none.

That situation has created the burgeoning market for server appliances—limited-function, inexpensive pieces of hardware designed do a particular task very well. Server appliances come in all shapes and sizes and can be purchased to perform a variety of functions.

At first blush, a server appliance may sound like the ideal solution, but there are some drawbacks. Integrators servicing Windows-based networks will find that the majority of server appliances do not offer seamless integration. Why? Well, most are based on open-source software such as Linux or BSD and lack much of the proprietary code to fully interact with all of the management and integration hooks used by Microsoft products. Over time, that situation can reduce the ROI of the products, simply because of the additional management overhead incurred when network changes are made. So, how does the Microsoft-
centric integrator solve these problems? The answer is to build custom appliances using Microsoft technologies.

Windows Appliances?
Surprisingly, very few integrators know about Microsoft's dedicated server solutions built using Windows Embedded Server, and even less realize that some larger vendors are already selling preconfigured units. While Windows Embedded Server is not a secret, Microsoft does not emphasize the availability of the product to the channel.

Windows Embedded Server comes in many forms, with associated licenses and deployment choices, which can make choosing an appropriate product a daunting task. What's more, channel players will need to turn to a Microsoft Authorized Embedded Distributor to purchase and license the product. Microsoft has outlined a detailed process on what it takes to become an OEM, eligible for creating products that use Embedded solutions, and before jumping in, there is a catch: Windows Embedded Server Products are not designed (or licensed) for deployment of line-of-business applications. In other words, if a VAR is looking to build an appliance for accounting software, inventory management or databases, then Embedded Server is not the product to use.

While it's arguable that there is a technical reason why Embedded Server cannot be used for line-of-business applications, Microsoft's concern may lie in the fact that Embedded Server could threaten traditional Windows Server 2003 sales and the associated client access licenses (CALs) needed.

What Can Embedded Server Do For A VAR?
Microsoft has broken down the Embedded Server product line into five major products, each with its own subset of solutions. With such a complex product matrix, where should a VAR looking to build OEM appliances start? The simplest approach is to focus on the basics, and with Windows Embedded Server Products, that takes the form of storage.

Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 offers support for as many as four processors, eliminates the need for a monitor, mouse and keyboard and requires no CALs. The idea behind the product is to seamlessly bring NAS to a Microsoft-based network. A little-known capability of the product is the appliance's ability to also work as a print server.

While Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 may be the easiest appliance/embedded product to build and deliver, VARs have to remember that the network storage space is full of competitors and it is difficult to differentiate yourself. In other words, the easier it is to build an appliance, the more likely it is that a competitor is doing it.

There are five routes an OEM can choose from to build appliances, but the number of solutions based on those appliances increases exponentially when each is customized for a vertical market. That flexibility comes with a price, however—namely the complexity of navigating the OEM process, which Microsoft breaks down into 11 steps. But while there are significant challenges involved, VARs will find that in the end they will be able to offer their customers unique products that integrate into their existing Microsoft networks.

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