There was a time when deploying a new server required a team of engineers to design the hardware, install and configure the software and then integrate into into existing infrastructure. But server appliances are simplifying the task of deploying solutions by delivering purpose built and configured devices.
At the heart of the this new appliance-based approach is a series of reference designs that have been put together by Microsoft. Although one of the most compelling features of a Windows server environment is the capacity to design bespoke solutions, this flexibility is a double-edge sword. Rob Reinauer, a Product Unit Manager from Microsoft's HQ in Redmond explains.
"The reference architectures - you can tweak them to your heart's content. But that's the whole point. It may be that 'I know that the size of my workload is this and as a result I know I'll need more memory'. If you can bring flexibility to this low risk strategy then you can tweak it".
The actual reference architecture designs are available online so, if you prefer not to purchase your solution 'off-the-shelf' it's possible to put together your own hardware. One of the core philosophies around the reference designs is balance. Rather than simply specifying a design with the fastest processor and most memory, the hardware is designed to be "balanced" according to Reinauer.
The CPU, memory, storage interfaces, hard drives and other key components are matched together. Rather than spending on a CPU that would sit idle, a lower spec CPU might be chosen with the savings invested into faster spinning drives, memory or comms interfaces.
As Reinauer explains "We've got a whole bunch of hardware guys working on this. It is difficult to build a balanced system. We have very detailed analytical and queuing models. Then we build it and we're still surprised by what we find".
These reference architectures aren't new. The Fast Track architecture for Business Intelligence is now at version 3.0
In the past, Microsoft provided guidance as to what hardware was required for a specific purpose. But the evolution towards reference architectures provides better detail. It also means that vendors such as HP, Dell and Cisco can build server appliance products that businesses can buy directly. Or they can build and customise their own.
The question of risk is interesting. If we take any basic risk management methodology, it's likely that you'll that design mitigation strategies based on the likelihood of occurrence and potential impact of a risk. Part of Microsoft's philosophy is that if IT departments purchase the hardware and software together then managing future issues is simplified.
"Support is now at the appliance level. When you're getting support on the appliance, they're not saying 'What drives do you have?' They're saying that you have such and such an appliance, tell us what your process looks like" says Reinauer.
For organisations where technology is not a core activity, the capacity to simplify deployment and support can be a compelling proposition. However, the integration of the appliance into existing systems is still a significant activity. In the case of integrating a BI device, Microsoft has developed a series of different data models that can be used as the basis for integration.
There are several different reference architectures in place or being developed. Fast Track is the data warehousing reference architecture. There are different hardware profiles in the architecture as it's clear that a one-size-fits-all model isn't practical. As well as specifying the hardware from a performance point of view, the reference architectures also deal with high availability requirements, blade solutions and rack-mounted units.
HP is offering a BI appliance that's designed for 80 concurrent users customers. However, you will need to ensure that you have appropriate licensing in place for the server and CALs. "You may already have pieces of this platform in place. You may have the licenses. It's just a matter of stitching it together with your existing licensing arrangements" says Marcella Larsen, a Senior Product Manager at Microsoft.
Disclaimer: Anthony Caruana travelled to Tech Ed Australia as a guest of Microsoft