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Creating a Microsoft BI Demo Environment

Posted by Alan on October 26, 2011

One of the big struggles I have had over the past few years is the ability to do a comprehensive sales, proof of concept or training demo that covers the entire Microsoft BI Stack and always being able to present practically anything in any combination without the luxury of a huge lead time.  Why has this been a problem?  Well it is all due to the fact that the robustness of the Microsoft BI stack is really a double-edged sword.  On the positive side, I have a ton of great functionality to choose from that can be molded to fit the unique needs of the client.  On the downside side, staying on top of all the potential moving parts has become more and more difficult over time as the product line has grown.

So up to this point I have been pretty much been relying upon the virtual images that Microsoft creates, albeit it with tweaks and modifications of my own.  Over the course of time I have worked with many versions of the Microsoft All-Up BI demo.  The 7.1 version was a great start and the first one with which I ever worked.  I am not sure if a 8.x image was ever produced, but if it was I don’t believe it was ever made available to the general public.  The 9.2 image sucked big time and that is an understatement.  And the latest image entitled “X” (for 10 I assume) is fantastic and really shows the potential of the products and has a great deal of “eye candy” as well.  In fact, you can visit the Microsoft Online Demo Solutions site and check out 9.5 and X and judge for yourself.

Now I know Microsoft puts in a lot of effort into these and for the most part does a great job, but all these images share one fatal flaw.  Performance is problematic.  Each image is a single virtual server that has a TON of components running at the same time.  You have Windows Server, SQL Server and Analysis Services (and sometimes more than one running instance of each), Reporting Services, SharePoint Server (and all the services that go with it), Internet Information Services, the Office Suite and Internet Explorer.  It doesn’t matter if it is physical or virtual that is a huge amount to have running on one box at the same time and unfortunately performance suffers.

My laptop is a dual-core i5 2.5 GHz processor and has 8 GB RAM.  I have tried running the X running natively under Windows Server 2008 R2 using Hyper-V (I dual booted) as well as under Windows 7 using the Sun Virtual Box product.  The image ran, but I would never want to show it in a sales  or proof of concept scenario.  I have also installed the image on the Hyper-V server in our office and run it with a larger allocation of memory (12 to 20 GB) and while performance increases to acceptable levels there are still times where the system seems to get “overloaded” and it all grinds to a halt for a bit.  If I was just using this for internal learning or for my own testing and trials I wouldn’t really mind it.  However, the problem is due to the fact that prospects and clients seldom understand that the image being used in front of them and the speed at which things are happening is not typical of a production deployment.  Like it or not, this perceived slowness sticks in their mind and it can be near impossible to reverse it and when it is all said and done, who wants to buy a “slow” solution.

So what am I doing now?  I am building my own multi-image environment.  I am lucky that TGO Consulting is a Gold Microsoft Partner and with that we are provided with certain software benefits.  Thanks to these benefits I have the freedom to build a perfect environment with the major investments just being a server to host our virtual images and some time.  Now unfortunately I have yet to figure out a way to get someone to give me a free server so I can have it all to myself so until I can I have to utilize an existing Hyper-V Server that is shared with other groups in our organization.  This means that my ideal environment is not quite there yet but at least I am getting close.

So here is the rundown of my new environment:

Image #1 – Domain Controller (Separate IP Addresses and Domain from TGO Corporate)

  • 2 GB Memory (Potentially Being Lowered to 1 GB or 512 MB)
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise
  • Active Directory Domain Controller


Image #2 – SQL Server

  • 4 GB Memory
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise
  • SQL Server 2008 R2 Enterprise
    • Database Services
    • Analysis Services (UDM Mode)
    • Reporting Services
    • Integration Services
    • Adventure Works Sample DBs/Cubes
    • Dynamics GP Sample DBs/Cubes


I
mage #3 – Application Server

  • 4 GB Memory
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise
  • Office SharePoint Server 2010 Enterprise (Kerberos & Claims)
    • PerformancePoint Services
    • Visio Services
    • Excel Services
    • Business Connectivity Services
    • PowerPivot for SharePoint
    • Etc.
  • SQL Server 2008 R2 Enterprise
    • Analysis Services (PowerPivot/Vertipaq Mode)


Image #4 – Windows 7 Client

  • 4 GB RAM
  • Windows 7 Ultimate (64-bit)
  • Office Suite (64-bit)
    • Excel (with PowerPivot)
    • Word
    • PowerPoint
    • Access
    • Outlook
    • Visio
  • Internet Explorer 9
  • SharePoint Designer
  • Dashboard Designer

What is really amazing about this is that in total I am consuming 14 GB of memory and I am getting far better performance than using a single image where I routinely dedicated 12 to 16 or sometimes even 20 GB of memory.  Plus when I need to do  something SQL Server intensive that does not use SharePoint or PowerPivot I can shut down the Windows 7 Client and Application Server images and temporarily assign more memory to the SQL Server.  And if we ever have a huge presentation where we need every last ounce of power from the shared Hyper-V server, I can arrange to borrow resources from other non-BI images for a while.

So what is the downside of all this?  First is that my ability to do BI presentations is directly tied to my ability to get an internet connection and make a VPN connection to our office.  So far this has not been a problem but there are organizations who believe it or not do not have internet access available to outside parties or have internet available in their meeting or boardrooms.  Second is the time it takes to make it look nice.  Although I have access to the same databases they used for the data (e.g., Adventure Works, Contoso, etc.) Microsoft did a kick-butt job on the visual aspects of the BI X image and it looks fantastic.  To replicate what they did takes a lot of time.  I have though about just doing site backup and restores from their single image to my multiple image environment and I might give that a try.

You might also ask why I am using an image for a Windows client when I could just simply connect my own laptop to this new environment and run all the client stuff locally.  It all came down to reliability and control.  On my laptop I am constantly installing widgets, add-ins, new code, whatever and sometime I blow things up.  When it comes time for an important presentation I need to be assured that everything will run perfectly.  Having an image dedicated to a Windows 7 client gives me that reliability.

The only thing left to figure out is email.  I will continue to use Outlook as the client, but what about the delivery system?  I do not want to go Exchange because 4 images is my limit of patience and it is overkill for the stuff I do.  I will probably go with the default SMTP services found within Windows Server for outbound and will look to find a freeware, shareware or open source POP service since that functionality has been removed from Windows Server 2008 R2.  I don’t know which image I will install it on and will figure that out once I find the right software.  If anyone has a suggestion please let me know.

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2 Responses to “Creating a Microsoft BI Demo Environment”

  1. Rachid said

    Hi,

    Thanks for this article. We recently started to offer Microsoft’s BI to our customer. Especially in the pre sales phase we are in need of a good demo environment, not some clickable flash apps. But it is hard to find some good example data (or virtual images offering that). The Microsoft Online Demo Solutions site removed the downloads for their virtual images. Is there any other source offering something similar for the Microsoft BI Platform (SQL Server, SharePoint (PerformancePoint) and PowerPivot). I would appreciate any hint to example data/images/environments. Thanks.

    Regards,

    Meister

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