Guest Post: The Age of the Email Appliance?

First in our series of Guest posts by Exchange MVP's is Kevin Ball, exploring a new approach to on-premise Exchange hardware. My interest in appliances was piqued at WPC last year, with the launch of the Azure appliance and if you wanted to retain some Exchange on-premise, but without the all the complexity of managing hardware this seems like a sensible approach. Matched with Cloud Services could Exchange appliances be the future of Exchange on-premise?

Kevin Ball is a Senior Mail Support Consultant, working within the Enterprise Infrastructure Services group at Hewlett-Packard. He has been working with Exchange since Version 4.0 Release Candidate 2, back in 1996, and he has received a Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award in Exchange Server from Microsoft every year since 2007. Follow him on Twitter for random observations on life including the occasional Exchange-related tweet: @zbnet.

Appliances are wonderful things. It’s great having a white box in the kitchen that cools and freezes stuff with just a numbered dial to adjust - I get to stop my food decaying without having to become a refrigeration engineer and build a cooling plant and know about the safe handling procedures for tetrafluoroethane*.

Exchange 2010 is a great product - arguably the best-ever version of Microsoft's now very mature enterprise email server. Exchange 2010 has more disk storage options than ever, and can be utilised in vastly varied configurations, which makes it extremely flexible and adaptable to a wide variety of email needs. But every coin has two sides, and variety of configuration options means that setting it up correctly for any given situation needs care, and often expertise. How many IOPS should you allow per mailbox? Will the bus bandwidth of a particular disk controller be fast enough? Are your disks performance-bound or capacity-bound? These and a hundred other questions need answers before you can be sure your hardware spec is up to the task of serving your particular user community with no fear of resource shortage.

Microsoft helps, of course - there's the famous Mailbox Server Role Requirements Calculator spreadsheet (http://blogs.technet.com/b/exchange/archive/2010/02/17/3409348.aspx), which can be used to specify the required disks, memory and processors for a certain number and a certain type of users. But even with all the great tools and TechNet, planning Exchange servers can be daunting for the small- or medium-sized enterprise who lack a tame Exchange expert, or who can't afford the time and cost of specialised training.

Another option is to hire in a consultant, or outsource to a services company. That works for some, but can tend to be costly. Not everyone needs nor wants to spend money on the luxury of a custom-designed bespoke Exchange configuration. Wouldn't it be great if we could buy our Exchange servers like we buy our refrigerators – according to their storage capacity, and with just a simple numbered dial to control them? When will the age of the email appliance be born?

Welcome to the stage the E5000 from HP. One fruit of a $250 million collaboration between HP and Microsoft, the E5000 family of appliances (there are 5 different models) are a new venture for both companies in the partnership.

What You Get

An E5000 email appliance is basically a DAG-in-a-box (a Database Availability Group, or DAG, is a group of between 2 and 16 Exchange mailbox servers that can replicate database copies between them to provide highly-available access to Exchange mailboxes). The E5000 chassis contains two blade servers each of which is essentially a ProLiant BL460c G6, with a set of internal and chassis-housed disks (the type and capacity vary slightly according to the model number), a custom disk controller, an on-disk Exchange install kit (this is the first time any server kit has been sold with Exchange binaries included), and a newly-developed wizard that helps you set up the appliance. Also included in the price is a 3-year support contract for both the hardware and the software, that gets you help and replacement bits within 4 hours in the event of a problem or a component failure.

Because the disks are already fitted, you don't have to worry about IOPS calculations, and bus bandwidth, and disk controller set-up. Each of the two DAG servers has its own RAIDedfault-tolerant array of disks, as the minimum number of servers in a DAG to support JBOD storage is three. Also, as the appliance comes with a wizard, you don't need to be a certified Exchange professional to ensure the installation is set up optimally - the wizard steps you through a series of questions, prompts you for the information it needs, and then does its magic behind the scenes to deliver you an optimally-configured Email solution.

Does all that sound too good to be true? Is it really 'plug and go' Exchange in a box? Well, not exactly; the day of 'refrigerator-style' email isn't quite here yet. There are some things that aren't included in the box that you're going to want to get before your new email appliance can serve mailboxes for users. First on the shopping list is a pair of Exchange 2010 server licences (and don't forget your Exchange CALs whilst you're in licence-shopping mode). You're also going to need to buy some kind of hardware load-balancer (or a virtual version), because the Exchange 2010 servers in the E5000 are multi-role servers (each running a Mailbox, Client Access and Hub Transport server role), which means Windows Network Load Balancing (the 'free', software equivalent to an external load balancer) can't be used - it's incompatible with the Windows Failover Cluster component that the DAG servers need to run. Is the need to buy an external hardware load-balancer an issue? It might have been 12 months ago, but not in 2011 - the marketplace has responded to the growing need for Exchange solutions to use such devices, and now a number are available that will meet your needs, and are fully certified for and come with install and configuration documents for Exchange 2010 use, so you don't need to fret. See here for a full list. If you're at the lower end of the capacity of the E5000's capabilities, one (or two if you're committed to a full highly-available configuration) of Kemp's LoadMasters will suit you well.

So it's not quite yet 'plug and go' email-in-a-box. You need extra bits and pieces, and you'll need to have some idea how to answer the questions the wizard asks you if you're going to get the most out of your E5000. It's maybe not quite an appliance as it stands today, but don't lose heart. This is V1. Be certain that both Microsoft and HP are aware of the short- comings, and both partners are working hard at developing and refining the concept. Who knows what levels of refinement and automation will be built into future versions of the E5000 appliances? Those who know aren't telling, but things will definitely improve. Nevertheless, the E5000 isn't value-less - it's a bold first step into simplifying the complexity around implementing Exchange, and it’s a great initial effort. It brings an ease of configuration and a level of pre-supplied compatible hardware config to a newly accessible 'appliance-style' product, and in doing so begins a revolution that has the potential to help many small- and medium-sized enterprises implement the best-ever version of Exchange with the least amount of hassle and lost sleep - and that is a great step forward for Exchange, and for your users. Refrigerators and E5000s - they’re both pretty cool!

To learn more about the E5000 range, go to www.hp.com/go/E5000

*an inert gas used as a refrigerant in domestic refrigerators. It is denser than air in gas form, so if you breathe it you might die; and when evaporating from liquid to gas it absorbs copious quantities of thermal energy, so if you spill some on your hand you’ll likely get severe frostbite. So probably not a great idea to make your own refrigerator!

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