BI Appliances vs. Standard Servers and Reference Configurations

I recently spent several days at the Microsoft Enterprise Engineering Center (EEC) reviewing the HP Business Decision Appliance. The Microsoft EEC contains more than 600 servers and is available for enterprise customers and partners to set up and test different enterprise server deployments and gather operational and performance data. HP had three preproduction HP Business Decision Appliances available in the EEC for testing. The HP Business Decision Appliance is a preconfigured 1U server that’s designed to let you quickly deploy business intelligence (BI) solutions in the enterprise. One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked since reviewing the appliance is what makes it different from a regular server? So, let’s look at what makes this BI appliance stand apart from other servers.


The Appliance’s Specifications

At its core, the Business Decision Appliance is based on the HP ProLiant DL360 G7. From a hardware standpoint, it’s a 1U rack-mounted server equipped with dual Intel 6-core X5650 2.67Ghz Xeon processors. It has 96GB of RAM and eight 10,000 RPM 300GB SAS drives. Therefore, the Business Decision Appliance is essentially a server. However, there are several important differences between the appliance and a standard server. As an appliance, the Business Decision Appliance is designed to be plug and play. It isn’t really expandable—you can’t add RAM or CPU to it, and it doesn’t have any PCI slots to let you customize the device.


Preconfigured Hardware

Aside from the lack of customization, what is it that makes the Business Decision Appliance different from a standard server or a referenced configuration like you might have seen with the Fast Track Data Warehouse? (Follow the link      for more information about Microsoft’s SQL Server Fast Track Data Warehouse.) The Business Decision Appliance is completely preconfigured—Microsoft and HP engineers collaborated on the server design and specifications. They also tested many different PowerPivot workloads to make sure the server was capable of handling them. Internal performance testing showed the appliance was able to run complex workloads from 65 unique connections using a variable 5-to-30 second think time. Running that workload, the Business Decision Appliance delivered response times in the 2-second range with about 14 percent CPU utilization. Heavy stress tests with a simpler workload supported up to 250 users with a response time of less than 3 seconds. Because most users aren’t simultaneously running queries, this means the appliance can support hundreds of typical users. Buying the appliance preconfigured means that you get the benefit of the Microsoft and HP engineers’ experience and testing. You don’t need to plan the system’s hardware configuration or try to guess what the proper sizing for the server might be.


Preinstalled Software

Another important aspect that differentiates the Business Decision Appliance from a standard server or a Fast Track Data Warehouse reference configuration is the fact that the software on the appliance is all preinstalled. When you deploy SQL Server on a standard server, or even using a reference configuration, you need to install the OS, the edition of SQL Server that you’ve purchased, and any other products such as SharePoint and PowerPivot for SharePoint. With the Business Decision Appliance, the Windows Server OS, plus all of the required server components, such as SQL Server and SharePoint, are already loaded on the appliance. There’s no need to perform any software installations. There’s an initial setup process that needs to be performed to add the appliance to your domain and configure the different server products. This initial setup process is streamlined to minimize the complexity of deploying the Business Decision Appliance, and the entire process took only about an hour and a half. This makes deploying the appliance much faster than deploying either a standard server or a reference configuration.


Integrated Management

Managing the Business Decision Appliance is also different from managing a standard server. Microsoft offers a special Business Decision Appliance Management Pack for System Center Operations Manager (SCOM). The management pack looks at the health of the Business Decision Appliance’s OS, SQL Server system, and SharePoint configuration as a unit. It also lets you drill down and monitor each of the separate components. There’s also a new Business Decision Appliance icon in the SCOM operations console that uniquely identifies the Business Decision Appliance so that it stand out from a standard Windows Server system.


The Wave of the Future

Before testing the Business Decision Appliance, I had my doubts about the value of database appliances over a regular server. However, after working with the Business Decision Appliance for several days, I came away convinced that appliances are definitely a database trend of the future. Appliances such as the Business Decision Appliance make it easier for organizations to quickly deploy a high-performance BI solution without the guesswork involved in picking the correct hardware and software configuration. You can find more information about the HP Business Decision Appliance website. In addition, you can read my detailed review of the Business Decision Appliance in the May issue of SQL Server Magazine. If you have thoughts about adopting the Business Decision Appliance or have plans to use it in your environment, drop me a line at [email protected] or [email protected].

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