On January 21, I blogged about the joint HP-Microsoft announcement of the HP E5000, the first messaging appliance-type system specifically designed to run Exchange 2010. This week I’ve had the chance to spend some time in Cupertino, CA working with HP and Microsoft representatives from the team that created the E5000, which will ship on March 1, 2011.
In fact, HP is already shipping production units to channel partners in preparation of the formal unveiling on March 1. Full details of the available configurations will be available on the HP web site then. However, you won’t be able to buy these systems online from hp.com as they are only available through resellers. This makes a lot of sense as the reseller can help customers to prepare for the deployment of Exchange 2010 if customers don’t have sufficient knowledge to prepare for and then support the software.
At this stage of its development, a “messaging appliance” is still a tightly-bundled package of software and hardware designed to support a specific version of Exchange rather than something like a Tivo or other consumer-grade appliance that typically just works (or not) when it’s turned on. An administrator still has to prepare Active Directory and an Exchange organization to allow the E5000 to be deployed. And of course, if you’re migrating from a legacy platform such as Exchange 2003, you’ll have to deal with all of the tasks necessary to connect Exchange 2003 to Exchange 2010 and move mailboxes to the newly-built databases in the Database Availability Group (DAG) that’s running on the E5000.
Fellow MVPs Paul Robichaux and Brian Desmond joined me in Cupertino to look over the E5000 and discuss the most likely deployment scenarios with HP and Microsoft. We also considered potential enhancements that might be incorporated into future versions of a messaging appliance. We had many good discussions and HP took the opportunity to make some videos of us quizzing HP and Microsoft product management about the E5000 and testing its resilience against common failure conditions such as a complete failure of a disk holding a mailbox database plus removing one of the blades to mimic the failure of a complete server. I believe that you’ll be able to see the finished videos at trade shows and various places on the web. There maybe even some “blooper” videos to be viewed – believe me, quite a few mistakes were made during the taping.
Getting back to the subject in hand, the basic E5000 is built around a new 3U form factor chassis that is equipped with two ProLiant c-class blade servers, which are built using HP’s G6 blade platform rather than the latest G7 model – the reason being that the G7 model only became available late on in the E5000 development cycle. There’s plenty of power and flexibility available in the G6 platform so using it won’t make a practical difference in production.
Different CPU, disk, and memory configurations are available in three different models that make up the E5000 range. The E5300 is designed to support 500 mailboxes, the E5500 to support 1,000 mailboxes, and the E5700 to support 3,000 mailboxes. These numbers are based on a relatively heavy user profile (200 messages per day). Obviously, the servers will be able to handle the load generated by different user populations if they send more or less messages daily.
The E5500 and E5700 both allow you to select variants with 1TB or 2TB drives depending whether you want users to have 1GB or 2GB mailboxes. The E5300 uses 12 internal SFF drives while the E5500 uses 16. The big E5700 expands its storage with two additional building blocks (to form a 7U unit in the rack) to accommodate 40 disks, 36 of which are available for email. The drives are configured with RAID-1 and are hot swappable. The storage is configured by a deployment assistant and laid down to support the necessary databases and database copies within the DAG shared by the two Exchange servers. Each model is configured with different numbers of databases to support the desired number of mailboxes.
If you still need to install a public folders database to support Outlook 2003 clients the database can be placed on the system drive. This database will contain the system folders used by Outlook 2003 such as free/busy and the OAB. The E5000 isn’t intended to support a fully-populated public folder database that might contain thousands of replica folders but there’s certainly nothing to stop you creating such a database and placing it on one of the disks that are intended to support a mailbox database.
You’re not limited to installing the E5000 to form a two-server DAG as it’s easy to join appliances together with other appliances or standard servers to build out a larger DAG. In fact, one of the potential uses of the E5000 is to provide the hardware for a disaster recovery (DR) site that’s part of a large DAG. The appliance certainly has enough power to handle a pretty significant user load that might normally be spread across larger servers.
Out-of-the-box, the E5000 runs Exchange 2010 SP1 with RU1 on Windows 2008 R2. HP has built in the capability to check for and apply firmware updates to keep the hardware updated, but the administrator will have to keep the software updated with appropriate hot fixes, roll-up updates, and service packs using their chosen deployment mechanism. In particular, you’ll want to update Exchange with the latest roll-up update to make sure that you’re running the latest and greatest software.
Some might question this and ask why a device designed as an appliance can’t be more automated in the management of software updates. This is a fair question but perhaps the framework of messaging appliances built to run Exchange is still not mature enough to deal with many varied ways that customers keep software updated on servers. Some companies would welcome total automation of updates and would view this as a real positive for appliances like the E5000; other companies will want to control the software versions that run within their IT infrastructure and would resist any attempt to automate updates. In any case, the bottom line is that you have to apply whatever updates you require to the E5000 as the updates are released by Microsoft.
Microsoft and HP have worked together to optimize Exchange 2010 on the E5000. HP clearly did a lot of work on the hardware, including the development of a new storage controller to fit into the 3U form factor. Along with the chassis, the storage controller is the only new component in the E5000 – the vast majority of the other bits that make up the appliance come from the HP parts bin and are well known to anyone who has worked with c-class ProLiant blades. Microsoft helped HP to tune the controller to handle the I/O profile for Exchange 2010. Both companies say that there’s enough disk and I/O capacity to allow a single server to handle the number of mailboxes for which the various E5000 models are configured. In fact, given that it will take time for users to accumulate enough email to fill their 2GB+ mailboxes, the E5000 should be able to handle more than the rated number of mailboxes without breaking sweat.
HP also developed the deployment assistant that sets everything up on the E5000 and removes a lot of the mundane, boring, but essential to get right tasks that make setting up an Exchange server a less than interesting activity after the first time you do it. Automation is usually always a good thing and having a deployment assistant to take care of all of the work to configure Exchange, set up the disks (LUNs, mount points, etc.), create the DAG including the configuration of both MAPI and replication networks on the two servers, name the mailbox databases, set up database copies, and so on is a very nice feature of the E5000.
The E5000 is really designed to be a mailbox server but both the CAS and HT roles are installed to provide a fully functional server out-of-the-box. The CAS servers are also incorporated into a CAS array. If you want to run pure mailbox servers it’s a simple matter of running the Exchange setup program to remove the CAS and HT roles. It’s possible to install and run the UM role on the E5000 but this hasn’t been tested by HP.
If you’re looking to create a truly HA mail server, you need to put a hardware load balancer in front of the E5000 as a CAS array only really provides a single point of contact for incoming clients and doesn’t do anything like automatic load balancing or detection of a failed server. A low-end load balancer would probably be sufficient unless your company has access to more sophisticated devices such as an F5 BIG-IP, which is capable of handling tens of thousands of inbound client connections.
The E5000 includes three years worth of support from HP in its price. The idea is that you have a single point of contact for hardware and software rather than having to ring both Microsoft and HP if you have a problem.
As a product in its first version, the E5000 isn’t perfect and the MVPs certainly had a number of comments and feedback for the HP and Microsoft teams to take into account as they plan future enhancements. However, it’s a really well put-together Exchange 2010 server based on solid and well-known hardware components that is easy to deploy and run. The E5000 will probably not feature in many large-scale Exchange 2010 deployments, but I bet that it will be a success in its target market of 500 to 10,000 seat implementations, especially for Exchange 2003 customers seeking to deploy Exchange 2010 and achieve high availability in an easy and cost-effective manner.
Read Paul Robichaux’s report for another view on the E5000. It covers some different points to the ones described above.