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Supporting Branch Office Environments

by Mitch Tulloch

Supporting the IT needs of branch offices that have limited or no IT personnel resources can be a challenge, and flying your sysadmin out to troubleshoot a server issue is not usually a cost-effective solution when problems arise. Microsoft has been making a real effort to address these kinds of issues experienced by large enterprises, and I reviewed Microsoft's Branch Office Infrastructure Solution (BOIS) in an article I wrote recently for Some readers have asked how the recent release of Windows Server 2003 R2 benefits enterprises who have branch office environments, so I'm taking this opportunity here on WindowsDevCenter to interview Richard Harrison, CISSP, principal technologist for infrastructure and security at Content Master, a technical training and consulting company based in the U.K. Richard authored the R2 update for BOIS as part of his work with the Core Infrastructure Services (CIS) team at Microsoft, so he knows a great deal about this subject and we're glad to be able to tap into his expertise.

Tulloch: Richard, can you describe for us some of the kinds of problems large enterprises have with maintaining their IT infrastructure at branch offices?

Harrison: Designing branch office solutions that meet the requirements of the branch office users without excessive cost to the IT infrastructure of the enterprise is not a simple problem. Organizations centralize services to try and lower costs, but this can increase the problems that branch office users face when the WAN is down, so it's a compromise, i.e. the "Branch Office Balancing Act." Centralize all services and when the WAN fails the branch office users are left with very little they can do but wait. The problem is that many organizations believe there is a "right" or "perfect" answer to branch office design. This is simply not the case, for no matter what technologies or services you add to the mix you will always face the fundamental problem of bandwidth costs versus service data requirements. The best you can aim for is a solution where the service requirements are balanced with available support costs and all parties understand the compromises they'll have to make.

Tulloch: Have you got any IT horror stories you can share with readers concerning branch office IT maintenance?

Harrison: I don't have a "horror" story as such, but I do remember a company I worked with "somewhere in Europe" that had such a serious problem with the reliability of its WAN links that the manager at one of their branch sites organized his staff in what resembled an internal rebellion. Whenever the link went down the whole site would launch a phone and text message "attack" on the central site, flooding them with calls and text messages until normal service was resumed. Not a particularly subtle way to communicate your frustration but it certainly helped HQ understand when there was a problem!

Tulloch: LOL, that's great, thanks. Now before Microsoft developed BOIS, how did large enterprises running Windows Server-based networks try to deal with these kinds of issues?

Harrison: For the most part companies I have spoken to would resort to "trial and error." A branch office scenario is not a straightforward environment to emulate in a lab, no matter what your platform is, so many enterprises have to roll out a solution directly to a live site and hope for the best! If the change could be deployed site by site you could minimize the impact to a single site until the problems were sorted out, but if not, the impact of a problem could have a huge impact on the business.

Tulloch: What was Microsoft's original goal in developing BOIS for its customers?

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Harrison: In a nutshell, to make branch office design simpler. Microsoft had been hearing from its customers and its own consultants that the branch office problems were simply too difficult to solve on the Windows platform. This prompted the CIS team to do a review of IT services and led to the creation of the first version of BOIS. CIS has access to a comprehensive lab that was ideal for the development and testing of a branch office environment, so they were able to develop, test, and document a complete solution.

Tulloch: Have large enterprises found BOIS helpful in addressing their branch office issues?

Harrison: The feedback from the first release was very favorable but there were still concerns at how complex the full solution was. In the R2 release we have focused on the planning phase for a branch office environment, as this is where many were struggling the most. We have provided a set of design templates (called Service Design References or SDRs) that can be used to create a design for each service in the branch office environment. The aim is to create a common and repeatable design pattern that can be used by solution architects and service designers to ensure a consistent and accurate service design.

Tulloch: I understand you were involved in updating BOIS to cover Windows Server 2003 R2 technologies. How did you get involved in this project and what was it like working with Microsoft on this project?

Harrison: I have been working with Microsoft on a number of large infrastructure solutions for over five years including the Microsoft Internet Data Center (IDC), Enterprise Data Center (EDC), and Microsoft Systems Architecture (MSA), now renamed the Windows Server System Reference Architecture or WSSRA for short. After these projects I worked with the Microsoft Solutions for Security and Compliance (MSSC) team on a number of very interesting projects including the Microsoft Antivirus Defense-in-Depth Guide and the Windows XP Security Guide. However, I continued working with replication technologies and branch office scenarios including BOIS version 1.0 and the early betas of the algorithm known as remote differential compression (RDC). So when this became a major component of the R2 release, I was fortunate enough to have the right experience to help the product group update BOIS.

Working with Microsoft is always an interesting experience, there is always so much going on, especially around the time of a release like R2. However the Microsoft team included people like David Golds, Dave O'Hara, and Dan Boldo and they are so passionate about what they do that it's difficult not to enjoy working with them. The only downside is when you can't do everything you want because of time and budget constraints--yes, even Microsoft has budget constraints! But that's life.

Tulloch: What benefits does R2 bring enterprises as far as branch office support that they didn't have before with SP1?

Harrison: There are a number of small changes that improve the overall branch office experience, such as the Print Management Console (PMC) and the File Server Resource Manager (FSRM). On their own they will not produce a "Eureka!" moment, however they do demonstrate that Microsoft is at last taking seriously the problems faced in these distributed environments, so over time we will see improvements throughout the Windows platform.

The single biggest R2 technology that has a direct impact on the branch office is the Distributed File System (DFS) Replication service. If anyone out there ever tried to use the old file replication service (FRS) to try and get files distributed across branch office sites, they will know that it was simply not up to the task. DFS-R is a completely different technology that has been designed and tested from the ground up to deal with replication of significant amounts of data in a robust and manageable form. Will it allow you to replicate entire hard drives worth of data across a 64Kbps line in a few minutes? No, and nothing will! However, it will allow you to set up a replication service that you can rely on, manage, and monitor, and it will get the data there as fast as your WAN links will allow.

Tulloch: Are you seeing enterprises begin to take up R2 and leverage it in their networks?

Harrison: You will have to ask the sales guys about that! All I can say is that I have seen a significant interest in R2, primarily because of DFS-R and the branch office focus of the release. R2 is not a panacea, but it is a much-needed step in the right direction. With Longhorn Server looming over us in 2007, many organizations are looking to that to solve their wider IT challenges, so we may not see wide-scale adoption of R2 in all areas of the infrastructure, but it is being used to solve specific branch office problems right now.

Tulloch: Are there still some branch office issues that need to be addressed beyond R2?

Harrison: There are many issues that need to be addressed! The remote deployment of servers and clients, branch office email solutions, remote printing, and backup are still too complex, unreliable, or bandwidth-intensive to be economical for many organizations. To be fair, these are not all fixable by Microsoft. The cost of high-bandwidth links is still very high in most areas of the world and until this changes we are always going to face serious issues with branch office scenarios--if only Moore's Law applied to WAN bandwidth!

Tulloch: Besides your involvement with BOIS, what else do you work on these days?

Harrison: Well, I am currently working on a number of projects for a team in CIS that is focusing on the Education environment. A number of the BOIS techniques and technologies map very well into a school or college setting, so I am really enjoying working on the problems associated with these areas. Other than that, there are a significant number of interesting beta programs I am working with, including Vista, Longhorn Server, and Microsoft Client Protection (MCP). Content Master is also in the process of expanding so that is keeping me pretty busy too. Finally, my wife and four children make sure the few moments that are left aren't wasted … life is good.

Tulloch: Thanks, Richard, for sharing your expertise with O'Reilly readers!

Mitch Tulloch is the author of Windows 2000 Administration in a Nutshell, Windows Server 2003 in a Nutshell, and Windows Server Hacks.

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