Microsoft is continuing its march into the data storage realm, announcing an upgrade to its storage-focused operating system and changes to its server computer OS that are designed to improve the management of storage networks.

The moves, announced Monday, are the latest sign that the Redmond, Wash. company is serious about making its Windows technology a major player in networked storage environments, which are being used by companies to squeeze more out of their storage equipment and manage the gear better.

"Customers tell us they are looking for ways to improve the efficiency of their IT (information technology) infrastructure through networked storage on the Windows platform," Zane Adam, Microsoft director of product management and marketing for storage, said in a statement.

One piece of Microsoft's storage announcement focused on Windows Storage Server 2003, which is an operating system for so-called network-attached storage (NAS) devices. NAS products are dedicated computers that typically serve up files on a network. The company said Windows Storage Server 2003 now has the ability to store data from Microsoft's messaging software, Exchange Server 2003. Microsoft said a "feature pack" with support for Exchange Server 2003 will be available to customers through NAS device makers in the coming months.

Microsoft released a revamped version of its operating system for NAS last year, with an eye to capture higher-end customers. NAS manufacturers such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard are using Microsoft's software in their machines. Network Appliance is a major rival to Microsoft and its allies in this market.

Microsoft also unveiled changes to Windows Server 2003 that are aimed at making so-called storage area networks (SANs) simpler to manage. SANs link storage devices to server computers, typically using the Fibre Channel protocol. SANs traditionally have differed from NAS products by offering access to data on a more fundamental "block" level and by typically allowing for higher performance and greater capacity. The line between the two technologies, though, is blurring.

Microsoft said it has developed a "Fibre Channel Information Tool" for Windows Server 2003, which will allow IT managers to gather data about equipment in a SAN. The company said the tool provides customers with configuration data needed to solve problems in environments with equipment from multiple vendors. The tool will be available for free download in May, Microsoft said.

In addition, the company announced support for what it calls "storage tracing," a term that refers to examining communication between servers and storage equipment. It can be used by IT administrators to debug SANs without taking them offline, according to Microsoft. The feature will be available as part of Service Pack 1 for Windows Server 2003, which is scheduled for release in the second half of this year, the company said.

Microsoft also said it is expanding its commitment to iSCSI, a SAN technology that allows servers and storage equipment to be connected over commonplace Ethernet networks. The company announced support for iSCSI last year and said Monday that its iSCSI architecture is now supported with Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition.

The iSCSI protocol also got a boost Monday from HP, which announced a storage router product that supports iSCSI.

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