Most organizations understand the importance of implementing business intelligence (BI) solutions. BI and data analysis are vital tools for transforming the raw data that’s generated by an organization’s line of business (LOB) applications into intelligent information that can be used to drive the business decision-making process. However, there are several hurdles to implementing BI solutions. BI technologies are different from the relational technologies that are used to support most business applications. Implementing performant and scalable BI solutions requires a different hardware platform and skill set from the relational databases that drive LOB applications. The HP Business Decision Appliance (BDA) is designed to address these technological hurdles by providing a ready-to-run BI appliance that lets businesses quickly deploy BI solutions throughout the organization.
I reviewed the new HP Business Decision Appliance at the Microsoft Enterprise Engineering Center (EEC) on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington. The BDA is designed to be a BI platform for small and midsized businesses (SMBs), as well as branch offices or departments in an enterprise. The BDA provides more than adequate scalability for most SMBs; in an enterprise scenario, it can act in concert with a larger enterprise data warehouse, such as the Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 Parallel Data Warehouse, in a hub-and-spoke arrangement whereby the BDA functions as a data mart for different subsets of the organization.
The HP BDA is based on the HP ProLiant DL360 G7. Unlike a standard server that you might buy from an OEM, the BDA comes preconfigured. There’s nothing for the customer to worry about or change. The BDA is a 1U appliance that comes with dual Intel six-core X5650 2.67GHz Xeon processors. It’s equipped with 96GB of RAM and eight 10,000rpm 300GB Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) drives. The first two drives are mirrored for redundancy and contain the system software. The remaining six drives are configured in a RAID 5 array that provides a total of 1.5TB of storage. The RAID 5 array on the unit I tested was split into a 653GB D drive that contained the Microsoft SharePoint database and logs and a 713GB E drive that was used for system backup. Because the appliance is intended as a one-step install-and-run type of device, there are no PCI slots for additional add-on components. The front panel of the appliance houses a VGA video port, one USB 2.0 port, and an HP Systems Insight Display (SID) that provides easy-to-access system diagnostic information. Although I wished there were more USB ports on the front, I did like the easy access to the system diagnostics.
The back of the unit has two USB 2.0 ports, four 1GB Ethernet ports, one VGA video port, one serial port, and one Integrated Lights-Out (iLO) port for remote management. Notably, like many of the newer server units, there are no PS/2-style mouse and keyboard ports. The unit also lacks a DVD or optical drive. The system has two 460W hot-swappable power supplies. The BDA is essentially designed with the goal of efficiently serving multiple PowerPivot workbooks using SharePoint.
Installing the appliance was surprisingly easy, considering that the process essentially consisted of installing three different products: Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition, SQL Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition, and SharePoint 2010 Enterprise Edition. To begin the installation, I first connected to the BDA using HP’s iLO 3 management software. Like a standard HP server, the BDA supports full out-of-band management using iLO. iLO lets you power the appliance on and off, as well as perform other systems management tasks, such as running system diagnostics, checking system logs, and monitoring the status of the system’s hardware components. Using iLO on the BDA was exactly like using it on a standard HP server. Figure 1 shows the iLO console connected to the BDA.
After the appliance initially powered, I was presented with a series of setup dialog boxes. The initial dialog box prompted me to accept the EULA information. Next, I was presented with a dialog box asking me to change the appliance’s initial administrator password. After I logged on to the appliance as an administrator, the setup process displayed the HP Business Decision Appliance Quick Deployment Tool dialog box that Figure 2 shows.
The HP Business Decision Appliance Quick Deployment Tool guided me through the process of installing the BDA. To complete the setup, I also referred to the HP Business Decision Appliance Installation Overview guide, which provided clear and easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions for setting up the appliance. The initial dialog box states the installation requirements. To complete the installation of the BDA, I needed a connection to an Active Directory (AD) domain, a connection to a DHCP server, physical access to the appliance or access to the iLO connection, a domain user account to add the appliance to the domain, and a domain service account to run the SQL Server and SharePoint services. A handy More Details button on the HP Business Decision Appliance Quick Deployment Tool screen provides additional explanation about the installation requirements.
Clicking Next presented a Machine Name and Domain Join dialog box. This dialog box prompted me to input the appliance name, the domain name, a domain username that has rights to add a computer to the domain, and the password for the domain account. It’s important to realize that unlike a typical SQL Server or SharePoint installation, the installation of the BDA actually adds a new computer to the domain. Therefore, you need domain rights to add the new computer.
I named the appliance BDA01, provided the authentication information for the domain in the Microsoft EEC, and clicked Next. After a brief pause, the machine rebooted and presented another EULA for both HP and Microsoft agreements. Again, I entered the domain and authentication information. The setup applied various roles to the appliance, including the IIS Web Server and Application Server roles, then rebooted. The final stage of the installation requested that I supply the domain service account for the SQL Server and SharePoint services. It also asked for a SharePoint farm security passphrase and the domain user accounts that can act as database administrators. The domain administrator was added by default to the list of SQL Server administrators. Clicking Next presented a prompt to enable Windows Update, where I clicked Yes. During the initial setup, the Windows firewall was set to deny all incoming connections. The setup process automatically resets the firewall settings to allow incoming connections after the first update. This was the longest phase of the installation. This portion of the installation process installed and configured SQL Server and SharePoint and didn’t require any additional user input. After this phase of the setup completed, the appliance rebooted and performed a software update.
The entire setup process took about an hour and a half. At that time, the BDA was completely joined to the domain, and SQL Server, SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS), and SharePoint were all up and running. The installation process was amazingly simple.
If you’ve ever installed all these server products, you know that their installation processes are quite involved. The BDA took a surprisingly short time to install and configure the three server products. The appliance’s installation process essentially set up Server 2008 R2 with the Web Server and Application Server roles installed. It also installed the Windows Server Backup feature. The BDA installation configured SharePoint as a single server web farm and installed SQL Server with a default instance name of POWERPIVOT.
After finishing the installation, you use the BDA’s web-based SharePoint interface to work with the appliance. Users can use the appliance’s network name to connect to it. For instance, in my tests, pointing the browser to http://BDA01 displayed the HP Business Decision Appliance home page. The home page is displayed by default and has links that let you download trial copies of Microsoft Office 2010, PowerPivot for Excel 2010, and Microsoft Silverlight. It also provides links to resources to help you learn more about PowerPivot, including a virtual lab. You can later replace this default home page with one of your own if you desire.
Administrators can connect to the appliance by pointing their browsers to http://bda01:31812, which displays the SharePoint 2010 Central Administration page, as Figure 3 shows. The BDA Central Administration console is very much like the standard SharePoint 2010 Central Administration console except for the fact that it includes an Appliance Management link. The Appliance Management link lets you view the appliance status and uptime, as well as shut down and back up the appliance. It also provides a link to perform a factory reset of the appliance, which restores everything—including the disk partitions—to the original state. You can use Microsoft System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) to manage the BDA. However, unlike a standard server, SCOM shows it as a new appliance icon. SCOM also checks the health of all three of the different server components.
IT professionals who create PowerPivot workbooks need to have Office 2010 installed; plus, they need PowerPivot for Excel. End users can consume the PowerPivot workbooks that are stored on the BDA simply by pointing their web browsers to the BDA and clicking on the links. They don’t need to have Office 2010 or any other software in order to open and use PowerPivot workbooks. Excel Services on the BDA handles all the rendering for browser-based client connections. This means that you don’t need to upgrade your entire client infrastructure to take advantage of the BI data the BDA provides.
To test the appliance, I created a multi million-row PowerPivot workbook and accessed it from the network. As you might expect, the appliance provided subsecond response times for this light load. For example, a 3.5-million row PowerPivot import took about 10 seconds. Subsequent work with the PowerPivot workbook was essentially instantaneous—including actions such as creating calculated columns on 3.5 million rows.
The BDA product managers I spoke with told me the device was designed to support 60 to 80 concurrent PowerPivot connections, which should equate to hundreds of real-world end users. Although I wasn’t able to perform load testing on the appliance, Microsoft shared some internal LoadRunner performance test data that showed the appliance can run complex workloads from 65 unique connections using a variable 5- to 30-second think time, with response times in the 2-second range and about 14 percent CPU utilization. Heavy stress tests with a simpler workload supported as many as 250 users, with a response time of less than 3 seconds. The BDA undoubtedly delivers first-class performance.
As you might expect, licensing for the appliance is a bit different from licensing a typical server. The base license for the BDA starts at $27,916. This price doesn’t include the cost of SQL Server 2008 R2 Enterprise Edition or SharePoint 2010. This licensing structure allows businesses that already have volume agreements for SharePoint or SQL Server to apply those licenses toward the appliance. Organizations that don’t have volume license agreements can purchase SharePoint 2010 Enterprise and SQL Server 2008 R2 Enterprise licenses when they purchase the appliance. The BDA comes with a 3-year service agreement, and HP is the single point of contact for all service requests.
The HP BDA provides incredible performance in a tiny 1U package. If your company has been looking to make the move to BI but has lacked the expertise to set up a scalable and secure BI infrastructure, you should definitely put the BDA at the top of your list. The appliance can be deployed in a couple of hours, and it provides first-rate performance.
HP Business Decision Appliance