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Evaluating an appliance server against traditional server deployment

Appliance servers sound good, but consider the tangible benefits of application-specific server deployment against current costs and future needs.

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Appliance servers can accelerate deployments and ease IT workloads, but there are implications to this application-specific approach that you should consider before adoption.

The traditional approach to enterprise computing is laborious and error-prone: Buy a server; license the application; install the hardware and software; then configure, tune and tweak the setup until you get decent results. Even the most enthusiastic and dedicated IT teams have to put out daily fires, work within a budget and try to develop expertise in key application areas such as SQL or Exchange. More computing power isn't always better; buying more application licenses and throwing top-of-the-line Xeon processor cores at your computing problems don't guarantee optimal results.

Corporations and IT departments are getting savvier when it comes to server deployment. An appliance server includes an installed and optimized application on an adequate suite of server, storage and network hardware, along with configuration and management tools and a comprehensive hardware and software support arrangement. Ideally, the application-specific server kit can be installed and put into production in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks. The company's IT team doesn't need to worry about increased workload, thanks to the around-the-clock support package.

A collaboration between Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, the HP Business Decision Appliance is an application-specific server package for companies that need a business intelligence platform but lack the hardware and expertise needed to deploy SQL Server, SharePoint and PowerPivot. Another appliance server example is the HP E5000 Messaging System, a turnkey platform for Exchange 2010.

Better, faster, cheaper application deployments

Appliance servers are intended to simplify and speed critical application deployments over a traditional server deployment. Don't let the sales pitch of straightforward deployment and optimized applications on an appliance server obscure important technical and logistical considerations.

If an organization already has ample expertise in Exchange deployment and management, and the importance of a new Exchange deployment justifies IT efforts, consider simply buying the software licenses and installing Exchange on an available server with existing staff for support. In contrast, a company switching to Exchange from another email system, with no in-house Exchange expertise or suitable hardware in the data center, should consider an appliance like the HP E5000 Messaging System.

As with any prepackaged product, an application-specific server has finite limitations in scalability -- primarily due to limitations in the underlying hardware and restrictive software licensing. For example, suppose an email appliance is intended to handle 250 to 15,000 mailboxes. If you're in a small company with 10 people, the appliance is probably overkill. If you're in a large enterprise with 50,000 people, the appliance may not meet the business's future needs. Calculate your predicted growth over an application-specific server's lifetime and ensure it can scale to accommodate the business.

Evaluate the underlying hardware against future roadmaps as well. Application-specific servers may include storage and networking equipment alongside the server, resembling a converged infrastructure product. Consider how this additional equipment maps to your current environment. For example, an appliance that includes storage may have a lower return on investment if the organization already has ample storage resources available. An application-specific server shouldn't unnecessarily duplicate other available computing resources in the data center, or you may be throwing money away.

Product roadmaps might influence an appliance. For example, some servers may use ARM processors or lower-end Intel CPUs rather than virtualize a more powerful server. This keeps hardware costs down and allows the server to be dedicated to the application. However, subsequent software updates and revisions may increase demands on the dedicated hardware, diminishing performance. When considering an appliance, know the product roadmap versus the appliance's expected service life -- future software changes must be properly supported by the hardware.

Appliance servers are always more expensive than purchasing the server and software separately, since the application is already installed and tuned, easing server deployment and setup time, and eliminating potential collateral problems and stress during in-house deployments. Does your staff have ample expertise in deployment and optimization, as well as the time free to deploy the application, or are they inexperienced or heavily engaged with higher-priority projects?

Be sure to consider any recurring licensing costs as part of the total investment in an appliance server. Will there be implications for any pre-existing licenses that you already possess? For example, HP reports that clients already holding licenses for server applications (such as SQL Server) needn't buy new licenses when they purchase the appliance server. Still, licensing is a complex and often convoluted issue, so peruse the licensing's fine print before making a purchase.

And don't overlook support, which is often a selling point for appliance servers. If you're opting for an appliance because you have no expertise with SQL Server, for example, it would be catastrophic to be left without support if a configuration or performance problem arose with the software.

Although an application-specific server appliance is intended to provide a turnkey function, it still must integrate with the existing data center infrastructure. For example, will the new appliance be managed by existing management tools? If not, does it make sense for the IT staff to learn and adopt a new management tool or suite of tools? Also, how will the new appliance be backed up or protected for disaster recovery? Storage-area-network data is probably already protected with backups and snapshots, so make sure that data produced by the new appliance is included in the protection scheme.

This was first published in August 2013

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