Tuesday, June 10, 2008

StartReady.com Appliances

Last week I met an interesting new Microsoft partner at an Unified Communications seminar in the Netherlands. In a couple of episodes I would like to share some interesting things these guys are doing. They build Information Worker (IW) based Appliances. This is something totally new to me. And check this out, one of the appliances is all about Office Communications Server 2007. I didn´t thought it was doable but I (they) will show that it is. In this episode I will interview the CTO of StartReady.com, Jeroen van Vliet.

Can you first tell me a little bit about your company and what you are doing?

StartReady.com is founded by two ex-Microsoft employees in the Netherlands. We are an innovative supplier of IT-appliances based on Microsoft technology. We believe in user-friendly and managed IT solutions, fitting the world and the times we live in. What we think makes a StartReady appliance unique is the investment we made in a flawless installation of these complex infrastructural Microsoft products. Next to the divers customer environments we have to work with, we are still able to install for instance OCS in less than 2 hours. And that including the integration with AD and Exchange, and the deployment of OCS Standard, Edge and Mediation. Just plug it in and you’re ready to roll. All these factors deliver an IT solution that is cheaper in purchase and maintenance than ordinary IT implementations.

In order to reach this, we created a list of “must have” characteristics for a StartReady.com appliance:

1. Easy deployment. With minimal configuration, we have the goal to install our appliances in less than 2 hours.

2. Remote Management. The appliance can be managed without requiring direct access to the appliance.

3. Integrated interface for a single function. There is a single “fixed function” interface that integrates the software and hardware deployment and management.

4. Appliance recovery and restore. An appliance can be easily restored to factory image or last known good.

5. Reduced cost of management. The OS should be hardened to the single-purpose of the appliance, and require infrequent patching.

These are challenging goals, how does you´re technical architecture supports these goals?

Appliance Technical Architecture (2)

One of the first things we did was creating an architecture to serve both a more complex and a somewhat simpler IW appliance. The complex architecture is based on Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and the simpler is based on Search Server Express 2008. By doing so we could very well distinguish the more generic and more specific architecture design decisions, see figure.

The host OS is based on Windows Server 2008 with the Hyper-V. One consideration we had was to install only Server Core. But for deployment purposes Windows Workflow Foundation and the .NET framework were needed. So a minimal install of the OS with only the Hyper-V and the Web Server role enabled is required. The Application layer is positioned above the OS and is for collecting the configuration information.

The Scripting layer is a generic layer used to deploy and configure the specific virtual machine images. We install and configure Microsoft’s System Center Essentials to make the appliance manageable. In our datacenter we host Remote Operations Manager (ROM) to connect to SCE remotely. We are the master hoster. On top of the generic architecture is the specific architecture of each appliance, Search and Unified Communications.

That´s interesting stuff, how does the overall process look like when a customer hooks up a StartReady.com appliance?

Installation Web Interface Sample (2)

As mentioned above the Application layer is responsible for collecting the information required to install and configure the appliance. One of the first steps in this process is the validation of the license key the customer receives when purchasing the appliance. We sell several appliance versions and by the license key we can differentiate them. The appliance validates the key through a web service hosted at StartReady.com.

After validating, the appliance knows exactly which customer it is hence which appliance he/she bought. Knowing all this the Application layer can collect the specific information needed for this appliance. When finished collecting the information the customer finally receives an overview of all the data and can push the finish button. And then you can sit back and watch how your IW appliance gets deployed and integrated into your network!

What happens exactly after the customer hits the finish button from a technical point of view?

Deployment Architecture (2)

That’s going to be a long answer. Lets highlight a few things and talk in more detail in later episodes.

When the customer hits the finish button two things happen. First the complete customer configuration is stored at StartReady.com. The configuration is stored via what we call the Remote Configuration Services. In this way we are able to quickly recover the appliance if needed. Secondly the workflow is kicked off. The workflow is responsible for the complete deployment, progress reports and error logging. The workflow engine gives us lots of advantages.

For example the customer can close the web interface and open it again at a later time and still see the current progress. Once the preparation of the first virtual machine is finished it is started. The scripts inside the virtual machine take care of the unattended installation and configuration. After finishing the first virtual machine the second is kicked off and so on until the last virtual machine has finished. We end with the SCE virtual machine which is automatically connected to our datacenter via a secure gateway.

At the end of the installation the web interface shows the last page and depending on the appliance we present some specific information to the customer. For example at the end of the Search Appliance installation we present the customer links to the management interface for Search Server and the search page itself. For OCS we prepare the automatic deployment of Communicator and the Live Meeting Client. And then the appliance is StartReady!

In the next episode I will have an interview with Paul-Christiaan Diks who is responsible for the overall architecture and we will talk about the unattended installation of Office Communications Server 2007.

For more information check out their website on StartReady English