[ Go to June 1997 Table of Contents ]|
-- by Art Brieva
Dual-processor servers are a hot commodity these days. Prices are plummeting now that numerous PC makers sell dual-processor servers based on Intel's Pentium Pro processor and Windows NT Server. Still, the dual-processor server market can bewilder even the most savvy buyer. The price for a midrange dual-processor Pentium Pro server can range from roughly $7,000 to more than $12,000. What, if anything, does that extra $5,000 buy you? You're about to find out.
For this server roundup, we compared midrange dual-processor servers at low (roughly $7,000) and high ($12,000+) price points. We asked three server manufacturers-Compaq Computer, Dell Computer and Micron Electronics-to participate. We chose these manufacturers because each appeals to different server market segments.
Micron, a server newcomer, has modest pricing and targets smaller businesses. Dell provides comparatively high-priced servers that are gaining popularity in medium-to-large businesses. Compaq, which commands more than 30 percent of the server market, tends to put a similarly high price tag on its servers because of its extensive engineering and support expertise.
We requested servers equipped with two 200MHz Intel Pentium Pro processors, 128MB of RAM, four 4GB Ultra SCSI-3 hard disks and a RAID controller for disk redundancy. Systems we received met most of these requirements, with a couple of minor exceptions. Compaq and Dell provided us Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 RAID controllers and Fast/Wide SCSI-2 hard disks. As a result, the controllers' throughput (40Mb per second) didn't match the drives' throughput (20Mbps). Micron, by contrast, lacked a RAID controller solution but included two Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 hard disks and an Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 controller for a full 40Mbps disk I/O channel.
To ensure a level playing field, we started building each server from scratch. First, we installed a fresh copy of NT Server 4.0 on each system. We also formatted and configured the hard disks on each server similarly. We configured the Compaq and Dell servers' hard disks using the RAID software provided and placed all four disks (on each system) into a RAID5 configuration. (As mentioned, the Micron server did not support RAID.) Then, we partitioned the hard disks on the Dell and Compaq servers-which appeared as one logical hard disk to NT-into three sections: a 50MB boot partition formatted under FAT, a 500MB NOS partition formatted under NTFS, and the remaining hard disks were partitioned and formatted under NTFS. We formatted the Micron server's two 4GB hard disks as follows: One was 50MB FAT with the remainder to NTFS; a second disk was all NTFS.
We attached the servers to WINDOWS Magazine's production network (a 100Mbps collapsed backbone anchored by a Cabletron Systems hub). The hub supported four 10BaseT segments. These segments connected six test client workstations (running Windows 95) to our test servers. The client workstations included three Compaq Deskpro 4000 workstations (each with a 180MHz Pentium Pro and 32MB of RAM) and three Dell Optiplex Gxi workstations (200MHz Pentium, 32MB of RAM)
We conducted the throughput tests using Dynameasure Enterprise 1.5, a performance measurement and capacity planning tool from Bluecurve, Oakland, Calif. (see sidebar, "Benchmark Procedures"). Dynameasure simulates user workloads. Each client ran a small Dynameasure application that launched 10 motors. (A motor is equivalent to a user workstation.) This allowed us to test each server's scalability and file server throughput as we moved from 10 to 60 simulated clients. We tested the throughput with Dynameasure's Copy All Bi-directional test, which copies compressed and uncompressed data, text, and image files to and from the server. More specifically, the server reads data from its hard disks and writes it to client workstations. At the same time, the clients write to the server's hard disk. If the server is too busy to handle a client request, then the client drops off and retries later.
Micron Vetix 2LXI
Micron's entry in the dual-processor market-the Vetix 2LXI-is reasonably impressive considering its palatable price ($7,099). Though the Vetix 2LXI sacrifices scalability and redundancy, we were impressed with how it performed against the likes of the Compaq and the Dell.
The system supports 24GB of hard disk storage in its six 3.5-inch internal drive bays; two additional hard disks can be placed in the 5.25-inch bays located near the front of the computer. To access the drive bay cage, you must remove three screws. Six PCI bus master slots and three ISA slots are available for additional I/O boards. One of the nine slots can use either an ISA or PCI card-but not both at the same time. The system is cooled by two large fans (located in the front of the server) that draw air in, and a power supply fan (at the rear) that extracts warm air from the server. The 275-watt power can support all the I/O cards and hard disks that you can throw into the Vetix, but no redundant power supplies are available.
Eight DIMM slots on the CPU card support up to 1GB of ECC EDO memory. Micron's ECC memory can only resolve single-bit errors, so multiple-bit errors will halt the server. Additionally, there's no way of identifying when a single-bit error has been resolved. In other words, when memory begins to fail you won't be aware of the problem right away.
An Intel 82557 PCI bus master 10/100BaseT network interface card is implemented directly into the Micron's system board, along with the AIC 7880 Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 PCI bus master disk controller. The embedded SCSI controller daisy chains the 12X CD-ROM and the Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 Western Digital hard disks. These are speed demons with an 8-millisecond average seek time. Set the SCSI IDs manually via jumpers before inserting hard disks into the drive bay. Ideally, you should use another SCSI controller for slower devices such as CD-ROMs and tape backup units. We recommend purchasing a second SCSI controller to add a SCSI tape backup unit. The system board also comes equipped with a parallel port, two COM ports and a Cirrus Logic video controller.
The Vetix 2LXI includes Intel's LANDesk Server Manager 2.5. LANDesk is great management software, but we prefer when hardware manufacturers provide their own personalized administration utilities that plug in to platforms like LANDesk. This plug-in approach usually provides tight integration between hardware and your management platform. But even without the plug-ins, LANDesk lets you monitor the server's temperature, power fluctuations and potential failures. Remote server management is not an option for the Vetix 2LXI.
If your server won't be secured in a wiring closet or data center, the Vetix 2LXI offers impressive security features of its own. A server administrator password, which can be set in BIOS, puts the server into Secure mode. This mode prevents "curious" hands from tampering with the server's keyboard, mouse, reset switch or power switch. You can disable the floppy disk drive and place a padlock containing an alarm switch on the server.
Micron's server performed respectably when compared with the Dell 4100 and Compaq 2500 (see charts on next page). Our throughput tests stress the server I/O channel with heavy emphasis on the hard disk subsystems. Since Micron did not provide a RAID controller with this server, we believe it has a slight advantage in our write-intensive tests. The Vetix 2LXI supported a maximum 52 of 60 possible clients and had a 1.66MB-per-second peak throughput. (The Compaq supported more clients, but offered less throughput; the Dell supported more clients and more throughput.) The average response time from the Vetix 2LXI during peak load was a poor 74.42 seconds, nearly double that of the Dell 4100.
The Vetix 2LXI has an optional one-year on-site repair warranty from Digital Equipment Corp. and a two-year hardware warranty from Micron. You also get three free phone calls for NOS support (from Digital). This Micron/Digital relationship may sound confusing, but it works.
We called Digital on a Sunday to test this support policy. We were surprised to find Digital's support gurus on the ball. We gave them the serial number, told them the model we were using and asked how to resolve a hard disk problem. Since this was a hardware issue-and not a NOS issue-Digital promptly gave us the appropriate support numbers at Micron. Before hanging up, we quizzed Digital about some of the server's features. We were impressed that Digital had the latest information about the Vetix 2LXI.
Overall, the Vetix2LXI is not a bad choice for running I/O intensive file services. Its security was impressive, but it's certainly not as serviceable (in terms of redundancy and hot-swap features) as the alternatives from Dell and Compaq.
Dell PowerEdge 4100
The server market's fastest rising star is Dell Computer. Dell's server business soared 226 percent last year; only Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and IBM sold more servers in 1996.
The Dell PowerEdge 4100 offers an impressive chassis that's both sturdy and hefty: It's about the size of a hotel-room convenience refrigerator. You can remove the covers on either side of the server by undoing three Phillips head screws (thumbscrews would have been more appropriate for quicker access); you can secure the covers with the provided key and panel locks (found on each side of the server)
The key and locks are the only physical security included with the PowerEdge. If you're locking this server in a wiring closet or data center, the 4100's lax security isn't a major issue.
Under the covers
The 4100's chassis is split into two sections. One side houses the main system board that holds the two Pentium Pro 200MHz processors, eight ECC DIMM slots, three huge redundant fans, two additional Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 controllers, five PCI slots and three EISA slots. (The EISA slots are convenient for I/O cards that aren't available in a PCI format.) An Intel 82557 PCI bus master 10/100BaseT network interface card is also installed in one of the PCI slots (although it sometimes ships with a 3Com network interface card). The DIMM slots can support up to 1GB of ECC memory, which supports single- and multiple-bit errors-a major advantage over Micron's Vetix 2LXI.
The other side of the 4100 houses the server drive bays, the 500W power supply and an optional redundant power supply. Cooling shouldn't be a problem because air is drawn in from three fans in front of the server and warm air is removed by fans in the power supplies.
The front of the server cabinet stores six hot-swappable drive bays. Collectively, the bays will support up to 54GB of hard disk space (as soon as 9GB hard disks are more readily available). Our evaluation server came with Seagate Barracuda 4GB Fast/Wide SCSI-2 hard disks. They connect to the multichannel PowerEdge Expandable RAID Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 controller. The hard disks autoselect SCSI IDs (the Micron, by contrast, doesn't), so there are no jumpers to worry about. Three LED displays on the 4100's front assist in hard disk diagnostics. The PowerEdge RAID controller has 32MB of on-board cache and supports up to 16 SCSI devices. The Dell's RAID controller is only intended to take one slot, but it actually consumes a neighboring slot because of its mother-daughter chip design.
If the server fails, a lithium ion battery backs up the RAID controller's cache. We checked the PowerEdge documentation (located on Dell's Server Assistant CD) and discovered we could load Dell software on the NT server to manage the array. Using instructions from the CD and a Dell drivers utility CD (both included with the server), we created a PowerRAID floppy disk and loaded the array-configuration utility software.
Now, we tested the RAID array by pulling a hard disk out of its bay and then reinserting it. The array was rebuilt on its own. We then monitored and managed the array using the Dell PowerRAID software. The software also allowed us to extend our RAID-array configuration on the fly.
Like Micron's Vetix 2LXI, the Dell PowerEdge 4100 includes Intel's LANDesk Server Manager 2.5 software. Dell goes the extra step, however, by providing add-on software called Hardware Instrumentation Package (HIP). With HIP, LANDesk is more tightly integrated with the server and not just another application running on the server. The 4100 also includes the Dell Remote Assistant Hardware, which has a dedicated processor, memory and modem port that monitors ECC memory errors, voltages, temperatures, fans and SCSI devices. This hardware also manages the system backplane. If the server is down, you can boot it over the LAN or via modem. The modem support, working in tandem with LANDesk, can page or e-mail administrators when there's a warning or critical component failure.
The 4100 produced 1.85MBps throughput scores and sustained 58 of the 60 clients. The throughput scores (which beat the Compaq's and Micron's) were assisted by the 32MB of cache on board the RAID controller (compared to the Compaq's Smart-2 Array controller with 4MB of on-board cache). Clearly, the 4100's most impressive score was its 40.28-second average response time (better than the Compaq's and far better than the Micron's) under maximum throughput load.
The 4100 comes with a three-year warranty, with a one-year on-site warranty (parts and labor) from Digital. We've used Dell's 24/7 hardware support in the past, and found that Dell's service gurus were very responsive and knowledgeable.
The PowerEdge 4100's performance certainly caught our eye. While one server benchmark certainly doesn't prove Dell servers always beat Compaq servers on performance, the robust Dell 4100 definitely earned our respect.
Compaq ProLiant 2500
Compaq ProLiant systems command more than 30 percent of the server industry and are known for their incredible reliability. However, this reliability often comes at a premium.
Compaq's midrange ProLiant 2500 is an engineering marvel-the ultimate in serviceability. The front of the server has two doors; a smaller door sits on top of the larger chassis door. The smaller see-through door exposes only the floppy disk and the CD-ROM drives. The larger door, which has a key lock and a spring-loaded power-switch door, is used to service the floppy disk drives, hot-swappable drives, CD-ROM and available drive bays.
The hot-swappable drive bays support up to five hot-swappable drives that automatically determine SCSI ID. You can install a total of 45GB internally. Compaq ProLiant Storage Systems will support 9GB hard disks (once 9GB hard disks are widely available). The power supply's fan cools the drive bays. Here you see Compaq's attention to detail: The 2500 uses simple Velcro strips that guide warm air out.
One thumbscrew at the top of the server removes the 2500's overhead cover, and two more thumbscrews remove the side panel cover. The side cover lets you access the power supply and SCSI cabling. Everything else can be removed from the back of the server. You can remove the entire I/O cage and the processor/memory board with two lock clips. With the top cover removed, you see the removable I/O chassis; you can quickly install an I/O card into one of the two PCI slots and four slots that can hold either PCI or EISA bus cards. Unique clips hold in optional I/O cards for fast installation. A fan, positioned directly in front of the cards, cools them. The I/O chassis has Compaq's integrated 10/100 TX UTP controller on the PCI bus, two COM ports and a parallel port, as well as the integrated Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 controller that you can use for other SCSI devices.
Compaq originally sent the review server with a single Pentium Pro 200MHz with 256KB of level 2 cache, so we had to install the second processor. We spent most of the roughly 10 minutes it took for the upgrade running the EISA configuration utility and rebooting. Of course, we had to upgrade Windows NT and that took another 15 minutes.
The ProLiant 2500 also supports an optional offline backup processor configuration, which works with Compaq's Automatic Server Recovery (ASR) technology. If the server detects that the NOS has halted, the server will restart. If the processor is detected as defective at POST, then the backup processor takes over.
Compaq's ECC memory handles single- and multiple-bit errors, and logs these errors to Server Health Logs. You can access these logs, internal to the ProLiant, when running Compaq Server Tests (part of the Compaq Diagnostics utility); they are also posted to Compaq's Insight Manager.
Our evaluation server came with the optional Smart-2 Array Controller/P PCI Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 controller, which sits in a dedicated PCI slot. The Smart-2 array controller is a dual-channel Ultra-Wide SCSI-3 controller with 4MB of on-board cache. Like the Dell PowerEdge 4100 controller, the Array Configuration Utility expands capacity of the RAID array while the server is online. It also monitors performance of the array and the controller. You can set up the controller to support hot spare hard disks (that is, a hard disk waiting in queue for disk failure). Putting the array to a simple test, we removed an active hard disk and later replaced it. The hard disk automatically and flawlessly worked its way back into the array.
The ProLiant 2500's server management tools are awesome. The tools include Insight Manager and Integrated Remote Console (IRC). Insight Manager installs onto a workstation and monitors hard disks, SCSI controllers, ECC memory, fans, temperatures and system boards, and can print out reports of every I/O device in the server. You can set up Insight Manager to page or e-mail you when errors occur.
By contrast, IRC allows you to "remote console the server" and remotely reboot the system. IRC works independently of the NOS. This lets you monitor POST and NOS load during remote reboots. IRC is a function of embedded hardware and requires a modem to be attached to the server.
Our benchmark testing revealed a few minor surprises: the ProLiant's average response time didn't keep pace with the Dell 4100's, and the ProLiant's throughput was a bit slower than the Micron server's with the same load. Still, the ProLiant's average response time was 50.12 seconds, or 24.3 seconds faster than the Vetix 2LXI's response time. Also, the ProLiant peaked earlier than the other servers. The highest throughput was achieved at 30 users where the server benched 1.69MBps with a 32.77-second average response time. Even at a load of 30 users, the Dell 4100 outperformed the Compaq ProLiant 2500.
Still, if you're seeking reliability, manageability, serviceability and support, Compaq should be near the top-or at the top-of your list. Indeed, support for the ProLiant 2500 is top notch. Parts are covered for three years on site by certified Compaq resellers-who are usually only a phone call away.
The bottom line
The Micron Vetix 2LXI falls short in terms of manageability and redundancy, but is certainly worth the consideration of budget-conscious small businesses.
The Dell 4100's performance, expandability, redundancy and manageability impressed us. Dell is certainly an up-and-comer in the server arena. Compaq's engineering of the ProLiant 2500, however, remains second to none. It didn't beat the Dell 4100 in terms of benchmarks, but the 2500 is no performance dog. Either of these $12,000+ servers is sure to please demanding businesses with deep pockets.
SIDEBAR: Benchmark Procedures
WINDOWS Magazine performs head-to-head server reviews on a quarterly basis. The reviews appear in the NT Enterprise Edition's June, September, December and March issues.
Our technicians perform these reviews in WinLabs using Dynameasure Enterprise 1.5, a performance measurement and capacity planning tool from Bluecurve, of Oakland, Calif. Bluecurve's benchmark software instructs several PC clients to perform work using a Windows NT server. It also records how much work was performed within a predetermined time period.
After Dynameasure completed the tests, we used Bluecurve's Analyzer software to view test results, including bytes per second and average response time during each testing step. We used the Windows NT Performance Monitor to watch our clients, network and servers to identify the slowest point (or bottleneck) during testing.
Information about Bluecurve and Dynameasure-including a free downloadable version of Dynameasure-is available on Bluecurve's Web site at http://www.bluecurve.com, or call 888-258-2878.