New WinFS File System Key to Microsoft’s Longhorn

A new file storage system designed to be backward compatible with today’s Windows machines but also to move data-storage technology forward has been a long time coming from Microsoft. According to recent reports, the new file system will arrive with Microsoft’s next operating system, called Longhorn, which is slated for release at some point in 2005 or 2006.

In an e-mail to TechNewsWorld, Microsoft said it is “too early to talk about Longhorn,” but the Redmond, Washington-based software company expects to reveal more about the next-generation Windows operating system at the Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles later this month.

Microsoft has signaled that Longhorn will include a new file system known as Windows Future Storage (WinFS) that not only will revamp the way data is stored on physical media, but also will make the process of finding and visualizing data and applications faster and easier. The new file system, which will be backward compatible with Windows’ existing NTFS format, is one of the key components of Longhorn.

Upgrading the file system to accommodate the increasing mountain of data and operating system bloat has become a necessity for Microsoft, according to analysts. “They have to move beyond the current models for storing and presenting data to users,” Meta Group vice president Steve Kleynhans told TechNewsWorld.

File Folders Obsolete

The traditional Windows interface that separates folders and files into subdivisions might have been adequate for text documents that could be searched easily using keywords, but today’s diverse data requires something new, according to Kleynhans.

“You have to be aware of the physical location of data — what server, what sharer and what file structure,” he said. “That’s becoming meaningless and impossible to deal with when you have massive amounts of data.”

Kleynhans said data from Web pages, including video, audio, flash animation and other “compound documents,” are increasing the complexity of data storage, making today’s file systems inadequate.

“You shouldn’t be exposing users to that kind of complexity,” he said.

Timing’s Right

While the company has attempted to revamp the Windows file system in the past with the Object File System, Microsoft said it believes the Longhorn revamp will be made easier by the incorporation of XML technology, which will help remove extraneous detail and provide a greater level of abstraction.

Analysts agreed that without a new file system in the Windows XP operating system, Microsoft had little choice but to revamp and incorporate WinFS into Longhorn. “They have to do it now,” industry analyst Rob Enderle told TechNewsWorld. “There is no choice.”

Enderle said it made sense for Microsoft to build backward compatibility into WinFS so it would work with existing NTFS, but he added that the company will use the improvements in Longhorn to entice users to upgrade.

“There’s a huge stepping away from the old code with Longhorn,” he said. “You can read and access old file types, but the emphasis will be to get out of those file types. If you want the reliability and security you’re asking for, you’ll have to make a significant step.”

He noted that the backward compatibility will allow Windows clients to migrate gradually to the next Windows operating system, but slow-moving IT departments will face the potential expense of increased exposure to vulnerabilities and attacks.

Single Storage Image

Kleynhans, who called WinFS one of the main components of Longhorn alongside improved user interface and better security, said Microsoft could succeed at adding a level of abstraction to storage.

However, he said, the larger goal for WinFS — creating an integrated, single view of various information and applications — will be a greater challenge. “It’s more difficult than hiding complexity,” Kleynhans said. “The single image of all storage is a little more difficult.”

While Enderle referred to faster access to stored data and media that will be able to story more data by using WinFS, Kleynhans warned of potential problems with a new system.

“When you change something as basic as the way you access information in the operating system, there’s always the potential [that] things can break, applications won’t work and users will be confused,” he said. “There’s always a certain level you have to be concerned about.”

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