Thus far in this series of articles dedicated to large-scale installations of Windows operating system, we have presented solutions that can be applied to variety of computers, regardless of their make or model. This type of flexibility is without a doubt part of their appeal. However, it tends not only to complicate design and implementation, but also to limit (at least to some extent) the ability to take advantage of extra management features frequently offered by computer vendors.
Maintaining a level of hardware consistency on the desktop side tends to be difficult, but it is considerably easier when it comes to dealing with servers procured for and residing in data centers.
With that in mind, this article explores a Windows deployment methodology developed by Hewlett-Packard (in cooperation with Altiris) intended for use across the ProLiant server line. The ProLiant line consists of three families: ML, DL, and BL, which represent expansion-optimized, rack-optimized, and blade models, respectively.
This solution is the HP ProLiant Essentials Rapid Deployment Pack (RDP). Currently at version 2.20, it is a collection of tools intended for automated, unattended, high-volume server provisioning and maintenance. It is available in two editions: Windows (for Windows-managed installations of Windows, VMware, and Linux), which will be the topic of this article, and Linux (hosted on a Linux-based server and intended for Linux rollouts).
The HP ProLiant Essentials Rapid Deployment Pack Windows Edition
From an architectural point of view, RDP Windows Edition is based on the client-server paradigm, with client agents running on bare bones Windows (ranging from NT 4.0, 2000, XP, and 2003 although supportability varies depending on the ProLiant model), VMware ESX 2.5.2, or Linux based ProLiant systems (including SUSE Linux Enterprise 9 and Red Hat Enterprise AS/ES 3 on Intel's x86, EM64T, as well AMD64 platform), collecting inventory information and executing tasks coordinated from a central Windows Deployment server (responsible for storing inventory results in a SQL Server or MSDE database). The server combines two separate products Altiris eXpress Deployment Solution and HP Proliant Integration Module.
Generic deployment and management capabilities of the former are optimized toward ProLiant hardware by the latter. In particular, ProLiant Integration Module provides assistance with hardware-specific issues through scripted jobs (created with HP SmartStart Scripting Toolkit) and installation of ProLiant Support Pack software.
The Windows rendition of Altiris eXpress Deployment Server, hosted on Windows 2000 or 2003 Server (both Standard and Advanced/Enterprise editions are supported), has a modular structure composed of Deployment and PXE (Preboot eXecution Environment) Servers, stand-alone and Web-based consoles, and Client Access Point. As mentioned earlier, inventory data is maintained in a SQL Server database (named, by default, eXpress). Deployment Server is the communication hub for all managed systems. Consoles provide an interface for viewing server estate; creating, launching and scheduling administrative jobs; and monitoring the outcome of the jobs.
Client Access Point is implemented as a file share. It hosts tools, configuration files, software packages, and operating system images intended for distribution to target computers (in case of Linux implementation, the equivalent capability is delivered using Network File System technology). The primary role of PXE Server is facilitating the operating system installation process, which happens in two stages.
Stage One: First, the PXE-capable unconfigured (bare-bone) client uses the DOS-based Deployment Agent (the same version, which is incorporated into Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2 and Windows 98), referred to, in Altiris nomenclature, as BootWorks. Currently, Rapid Deployment Pack does not support Microsoft Windows Preinstallation Environment. To boot up, connect to the Deployment Server to upload hardware inventory, and prepare to execute administratively assigned tasks.
Support for PXE is built into embedded network cards on all the latest HP ProLiant models on older ones, this can be accomplished by installing PXE-compliant NICs (although you might also need to upgrade server firmware). Even in cases where PXE is not an option, a number of alternatives are available. On legacy servers, it is possible to use an Altiris-specific boot floppy disk (created with Altiris Boot Disk Creator utility, which is part of eXpress Deployment Solution).
However, this approach presents little flexibility since it requires physical access to the server, and it is not applicable to blade servers (where floppy drive, keyboard, mouse, or graphics ports might not be available). To circumvent these limitations, you can take advantage of the Virtual Floppy feature. Built into HP-specific Integrated Lights-Out (and older Remote Insight Lights-Out) boards, which are included with all newer Proliant servers, Virtual Floppy enables the admin to load the content of a floppy into the board's memory and boot directly from it.
Finally, it is also possible to boot from storage area network (SAN) disks, provided that managed servers are attached to HP StorageWorks SAN and support this feature. This applies to Windows Intel- and AMD-based HP ProLiant blades with compatible Fibre Channel Host Bus Adapter models, firmware revision levels. It requires appropriately configured SAN switches and disks settings. For detailed instructions about this setup, refer to the "HP ProLiant Essentials Rapid Deployment Pack-Windows Edition User Guide" downloadable from the HP Web site.
Stage Two: Once the first stage is completed, the newly inventoried client (identified typically by its serial number, although this is configurable) is ready for image deployment (scripted operating system install is possible, but considerably slower) and other administratively controlled tasks, such as script executions or reboots. Deployed images contain Windows or Linux Deployment Agents (depending on the target operating system). The same agents can also be deployed to already existing Windows, Linux, or VMware ESX systems, resulting in inventory being added to the Deployment Server database, and making them members of the managed environment eligible for remote administration.
To accomplish this, either launch the setup program (residing on the Client Access Point) directly from the target server (which is the only option available for Linux agents) or roll it out via Remote Agent Installer from the Deployment Server console.
The console is divided into three panes Computers, Jobs, and Details. The first one contains up to three main nodes labeled New Computers (those freshly discovered after booting via PXE or Altiris boot disk and ready for deployment), All Computers (which contains already deployed servers and virtual machines), and Physical Devices (which offers physical layout of blade servers in your racks ).
The Jobs pane represents automation capabilities that the HP ProLiant Integration Module offers. Scripted install jobs support a variety of tasks and include a number of predefined templates, such as pre-packaged cluster installations (intended for ProLiant 380 Packaged Cluster hardware) or deploying and capturing Windows operating system images (with support for servers attached to HP StorageWorks Storage Area Networks). Hardware-specific configuration tasks are incorporated into jobs using HP SmartStart Scripting Toolkit utilities (for pre-installation actions, like disk array configuration) or ProLiant Support Pack software during the post-installation stage.
As expected, the content of Details pane depends on which node is currently selected in Computers or Jobs pane. Console toolbar provides easy access to a number of Altiris utilities, such as the Boot Disk Creator and Remote Agent Installer, PXE Configurator (which provides the ability to modify PXE menu options), or Image Explorer (which simplifies browsing through available images).
In addition to the Jobs pane, whose implementation is based on HP ProLiant Integration Module, other hardware-specific features distance this solution from the generic capabilities of the Altiris product. The inventory data includes RILOE (Remote Insight Lights-Out) and iLO (Integrated Lights-Out) boards settings (such as IP configuration or firmware characteristics).
It is also possible to launch remote control sessions directly from the Deployment Server console, as it has a context-sensitive menu of a target server node. The enhanced console view simplifies management of blade servers and reflects their placement in a bay, rack, or enclosure. Furthermore, the Virtual Bays feature allows admins to assign a specific set of jobs to a particular position within a rack prior to populating it with actual blade. This way, once the server is added, preassigned jobs automatically execute. Jobs that have been executed on a specific blade can be reapplied to all blades or individually selected ones. This greatly simplifies recovery should there be a hardware failure.
Benefits and Considerations
One additional benefit for data centers environments standardized on HP ProLiant server hardware is the integration capabilities of the HP ProLiant Essentials Rapid Deployment Pack with HP Systems Insight Manager (SIM). SIM is HP's primary enterprise class management tool, which offers hardware-level remote monitoring and administration capabilities covering wide range of HP products (and, to some extent, industry standards-compliant third-party gear). Through this integration, inventory collected by Altiris Deployment Server and stored in its database can be imported into SIM data store. Similarly, RDP jobs can be scheduled directly from the HP SIM console.
Similar to solutions presented earlier in this series of articles, HP Proliant Essentials RDP operates optimally when leveraging DHCP functionality in combination with PXE technology. However, the ability to use PXE in a DHCP environment places additional requirements on the network infrastructure. This is the direct consequence of the way communication sessions between PXE-capable clients and servers hosting DHCP and PXE services are conducted. After a client sends out a DHCP broadcast, the DHCP server is supposed to assign IP configuration and notify (via DHCP option 60) regardless of whether PXE services are hosted locally. Depending on this response, the client either obtains a boot image directly from the same system or sends a request for it (again, via broadcast) to a remote PXE server. If DHCP and PXE servers reside on a different subnet, you must either configure your routers to pass relevant broadcasts or set up DHCP relay agents on managed subnets.
Among remaining important considerations to keep in mind before deciding whether HP Rapid Deployment Pack is suitable for your environment are the licensing arrangements and pricing. The cost is proportionate to the number of managed nodes (each one requires a separate, non-transferable license) regardless whether they correspond to physical or virtual server (as is the case with VMware-ESX-based installations). You also must purchase additional licenses for Integrated Lights-Out Advanced Pack if you intend to use Virtual Floppy feature for booting the servers, rather than relying on PXE capabilities.