Review of Microsoft's Branch Office Infrastructure Solution (BOIS)
Microsoft's Branch Office Infrastructure Solution (BOIS) is a package of documents and tools designed to help large organizations efficiently deploy and manage Windows servers at remote branch offices. The BOIS package can be obtained here from the Microsoft Download Center and I'll examine its contents in detail in a moment, but first some background on the problems BOIS is designed to solve.
Branch Office Problems
Most large organizations have a hub and spoke network topology, with one or more central locations (corporate or regional headquarters) connected to multiple branch offices (smaller sites). The connection between a hub site and a branch office can range from 56kbps dialup to 1.544 Mbps T1 connections or faster, but is usually in the range of 512 to 1544 kbps. From a business perspective, the biggest problem associated with IT operations at branch offices is staffing—it costs a lot to have a full-time administrator on site at each branch office to the manage IT infrastructure there, and in today's business climate anything that can be done to cut costs while still maintaining reliable operations is desirable.
How can you eliminate the need for local admins at branch offices? By streamlining the IT infrastructure at these remote sites, which can be done in several ways:
- Centralize some network services by moving them from branch offices to hub sites.
- Consolidate other network services by running them on fewer machines (co-location) or within virtual machines (isolation) using virtualization technologies.
- Standardize branch office equipment to simplify deploying, managing, and troubleshooting branch office servers.
- Automate deployment of servers for branch offices using scripts and other tools.
How can a large Windows shop that has many branch offices achieve these goals?
Essence of BOIS
Enter BOIS, which builds on the Microsoft Windows Server System Reference Architecture (WSSRA) that I reviewed previously here on WindowsNetworking.com. BOIS leverages the power of Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1, Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2, Microsoft Virtual Server and other Microsoft Windows Server System technologies to eliminate server sprawl, reduce complexity, standardize infrastructure, and reduce cost for deploying, managing and maintaining Windows servers at branch offices. The essence of BOIS is as follows:
- Move network services to the hub site if they can tolerate the low bandwidth and high latency typically associated with WAN links but ensure that critical business functions can work even if the WAN connection to the hub site goes down for a period of time.
- Consolidate the remaining services on a single server located at the branch office using either co-location or isolation (virtualization).
- Use Automated Deployment Services (ADS) and additional scripts and tools to simplify the process of deploying servers at branch offices using a "drop shipment" approach.
- Use Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) and Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) to monitor the health of branch office servers, deploy applications on them, perform patch management, and perform other management tasks remotely from the hub site.
- Use Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) to centralize backups and enable backing up data to disk instead of tape for quicker and more reliable recovery when a disaster occurs.
That sounds like a lot to ask of an IT shop in terms of new technologies to learn and new products to purchase, and in fact most large organizations already have branch office solutions in place that have evolved in various ways as the organization has grown (i.e. sprawled) across the country, continent or world. But for shops looking to plan large new rollouts of branch offices, it's pretty amazing what all these technologies can do in terms of simplifying the job of setting up branch office IT infrastructures and in terms of reducing cost by supporting these remote sites with staff located at the head office instead of on-site.
BOIS Proof of Concept
So what's really in the BOIS? What is it and how do you use it? Think of BOIS as a detailed roadmap, not to a place that you want to get to but to an ideal kind of place similar to where you want to go. BOIS is essentially an experiment Microsoft conducted using virtual labs technologies—an experiment to see if they could put together the tools to make it really, really easy to deploy, manage and maintain consolidated single-server solutions for remote branch offices. What the BOIS documents and tools are then is Microsoft accurately documenting exactly how they did it, why they did it the way they did, and what you can do by following their approach. In other words, BOIS is "proof of concept" i.e. a demonstration that the latest and greatest Microsoft technologies can be cobbled together (with the aid of some scripts provided in BOIS) to make the job of setting up branch office IT infrastructures as easy as pie.
The actual contents of the BOIS download are six MS Word docs and a folder full of scripts, job aids, and other tools. The Word docs are as follows:
- Overview. Provides a general overview of the branch office problem and Microsoft's solution.
- Architecture Blueprint. Detailed guidance on how to plan for solving the branch office problem for various scenarios including satellite branch offices, autonomous branch offices, and accelerated branch offices (the latter is Microsoft's recommended approach). Topics covered include WAN topologies (single or multiple hub), network segmentation (servers and clients should be on separate segments), forest and domain design (using a single domain forest is best), supporting core infrastructure services (tricky at best), domain controller placement (pros and cons of having the branch office server be a domain controller), and more.
- Introduction to the Single Server Solution. Microsoft does acknowledge here that deploying only a single server at a branch office might not be the most common solution or even the preferred solution in most cases, so this defines the limitations of the scope of BOIS somewhat, which is simply proof-of-concept that a single-server solution can work and be easy to deploy and maintain. The fictitious company Woodgrove Bank is also profiled here to describe the scenario Microsoft used for testing purposes.
- Planning Guide for the Single Server Solution. Here Microsoft uses their own Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF) and Microsoft Operations Framework (MOF) process models to analyze and plan the solution to the problem they pose. For example, the server they decide on for their Dallas branch will run file and print services, use ISA for web caching, be it an SMS secondary site server, have MOM and SMS agents running, and have various line-of-business (LOB) applications running in a virtual machine environment using Virtual Server, all on a dual CPU x86 box with 3 GB of RAM with a direct attached SCSI storage subsystem. ADS is then used for "build and ship" deployment using additional scripts and tools included in the BOIS folder (which includes a GUI tool for creating and configuring ADS jobs and tasks).
- Build Guide for the Single Server Solution. This is where the proof-of-concept stuff really takes place i.e. the server is built, deployed, configured and tested. Lots of detail here, and if you can follow it then you can customize it to your own situation fairly easily.
- Test Guide for the Single Server Solution. This final document concludes the proof-of-concept exercise by fully testing various functionality for your deployed server using a number of scripts included in the BOIS folder.
The level of detail is excellent in the BOIS documents, and the scripts provided are powerful and easy to use. The job aids are also quite helpful. But be warned that you should have good familiarity with the various Microsoft technologies used here (ADS, MOM, SMS, DFS in R2, WUS, and so on) to really understand what's going on. Familiarity with ADS is perhaps most essential of all considering the amount of coverage devoted to deployment tasks. And the scripts provided will really only be useful if you already have the Windows scripting expertise to understand how they work and be able to customize them as needed for your own environment. Overall though, this is quite a useful document for large enterprises that use or are planning on using Windows servers for their branch offices.
Microsoft has released an update of BOIS for Windows Server 2003 R2, see http://www.microsoft.com/technet/itsolutions/branch/default.mspx for details. The focus of this update is on creating concise and usable planning guidance to help medium to enterprise organizations design an effective branch office solution using R2 technologies. This version does not update the scripts of the original version.