Better management through consolidation
Consolidated servers, led by Cubix, hold sway over traditional PCs in manageability and reliability.
By Joel Snyder
One way to monitor and manage your servers is to neatly pile them on top of each other then tuck what's left under desks and behind cabinets where you can see and reach them.
A better way is to invest in a consolidated server that enables you to stuff multiple servers on processor boards in an industrial-strength chassis where they can share redundant fans and power supplies. With a consolidated server, you'll clean up the unsightly mess, improve management, decrease downtime, and get repairs made more quickly.
That's our assessment after popping the hood to examine consolidated servers from Cubix Corp., CommVision Corp. and ChatCom, Inc., the three market leaders.
While the systems are similar, Cubix's Cubix: PowerSMP Series 4000 earned our Blue Ribbon for offering the highest performance and reliability in environments with little or no configuration changes. Cubix combines its custom-made processor boards supporting high-end symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) with excellent monitoring and management software. And because it does all this at a stellar price, the PowerSMP Series 4000 also merits a Best Buy rating.
ChatCom builds a nice - although expensive - chassis. While the firm's ChatterBox ChatPower-Plus is more limited than Cubix's PowerSMP Series 4000 when it comes to management, it is more flexible than the Cubix unit in environments requiring a mix of processor types, peripheral devices and add-in cards.
CommVision's CommSwitch 2500 packs its processor boards in tight - fitting as many as 10 CPUs in a 10-inch chassis, but high cost, poor management and a strange reliance on Novell, Inc.'s NetWare keeps its score below that of Cubix.
The fix is onOne of the major ways consolidated servers distinguish themselves from traditional PC-based ones is by their higher degree of fault tolerance and the time it takes to repair a problem. Fault tolerance in consolidated servers is handled largely through redundant components, particularly multiple fans and load-sharing power supplies.
When it comes to making repairs, we examined how easy it is to reach and fix processor boards and components in each vendor's chassis, which all fit into 19-inch racks.
All three vendors make swapping out server modules easy, although ChatCom was the easiest by far. The firm puts the processor and disk drive on one motherboard that slides into the chassis from the front panel. So when something fails, all you have to do is yank out the problem board, replace the failed piece and slide it back in.
However, ChatCom makes no provision for gracefully shutting off power to a single board; we were worried that we'd fry one if we inserted it at the wrong angle, but we didn't have any problems.
With CommVision, all you have to do is pop the top of the chassis to get at and replace processor boards. However, it's not easy to swap out CommVision disk drives, which are mounted separately from the processor board. If you have a lot of drives, swapping one out requires taking apart a large chunk of the chassis and shutting down the entire box because the clearance between the hard drives and server modules is too tight.
The Cubix chassis makes changing server modules and separate disk drives easy as long as you don't mind wading through a preponderance of short ribbon cables. In fact, Cubix uses three times as many cables as CommVision or ChatCom.
Though short disk drive cables provide for cleaner installation and better airflow, they have so little slack that a wrong move could dislodge a cable from the connector. Likewise, moving one board in a full chassis could easily disconnect adjacent boards from their disk drives.
All the products provide easy access to power supplies but not to fans. Cubix has the only chassis that permits you to change all the fans without shutting down. The other two require major disassembly to get at all the fans.
Each of the systems has other engineering defects that may shorten their mean time between failures. For example, the single power cable on the ChatCom chassis leaves it unprotected from one of the major causes of system failure - power interruption. Cubix puts two power cables on its chassis, while CommVision puts a different power cable on each power supply.
CommVision, with fewer cables than Cubix or ChatCom, is positioned for the fewest failures, although its reliance on a processor running NetWare to load BIOS into each of the server modules is a weak link because if that processor fails, you can't reboot. The other vendors use the more traditional boot method of loading BIOS on the processor board.
Managing for successAll of the systems' engineering features call for high levels of management control. When servers are hidden in a computer room, the ability to reach out and reboot, control and monitor them is crucial to successful unattended operation.
Cubix is the leader in management services, even though we found glitches in its management software, GlobalVision. The package can be used to monitor and manage multiple chassis from one workstation by communicating with software on every processor board in each chassis. This enables you to cycle power, schedule a shutdown, disable dial-in access and reboot from one place.
In theory, the management software also is capable of monitoring chassis environmental information such as temperature, fan and power supply status. We had no problem using the software to get temperature readings, but the feature that was supposed to alert us when the temperature got too high didn't work because of a bug. Thanks to another bug, the management software failed to detect when we shut down fans or power supplies. Luckily, the front panel lights picked up those conditions.
GlobalVision also can automatically start up a remote-control application so you can see what is on the screen of each processor. This is all done in software, though, requiring a separate instance of the remote-control application to be installed on each server module.
CommVision also offers a management package - NetVision - but it doesn't have anywhere near the features of Cubix. Instead, CommVision's management software is oriented toward setup and configuration.
ChatCom's management strategy is in line with its architecture. Because each processor board is considered a separate system, you don't manage them together, which is OK if that's what your environment requires. ChatCom also lacks remote management and environmental monitoring.
However, ChatCom includes its Intelli-Management software and firmware on each card to provide for minimal management of the system, such as providing for an automatic hung-processor reboot. It's difficult to say how well Intelli-Management works because what we got from ChatCom was an undocumented beta produc,t and we weren't sure what to test.
These are not your father's PCsThe construction of the three products reflects their goal of attaining high availability. Each has multiple heavy-duty power supplies and can be daisy-chained to simplify management by enabling multiple chassis to share peripherals and power supplies.
All three products are administered from a shared monitor, keyboard, mouse and disk drive. To connect to the CPU board of your choice, you just press a front panel button or toggle a switch.
Cubix and CommVision have shrunk their chassis heights to just 9 and 10 inches, respectively. Each vendor makes its own single-CPU boards that are about the size of a normal PC add-in card.
ChatCom relies more on off-the-shelf components, so at 22 inches, its chassis is much taller. There's so much room on the inside of the chassis that ChatCom can produce boards with two 166-MHz Pentium processors plus two disk drives on each.
ChatCom took the most laissez-faire approach to design, making each processor board in its system independent of the others. Each CPU can have a ribbon cable connection to a shared floppy or have its own floppy.
The self-contained processor boards ChatCom produces enable you to mix and match various processor types in the same chassis. You can get up to a 200-MHz Intel Pentium Pro CPU with 256M bytes dedicated RAM, a disk drive and a network interface card (NIC) on a ChatExpress board. Each ChatExpress board takes up two or four chassis slots. The two-slot board has room for two ISA or two PCI plug-in cards, while the four-slot board can accept four ISA and three PCI or three ISA and four PCI add-ins,
ChatExpress cards use standard off-the-shelf motherboards. This offers the tantalizing opportunity for you to upgrade processor speeds or even jump from Intel to a high-end Alpha-based CPU from Digital Equipment Corp. or a PowerPC jointly developed by Motorola Corp., IBM and Apple Computer, Inc. simply by swapping in one motherboard for another.
ChatCom also makes ChatTwin cards that can have two 166-MHz Intel Pentium CPUs. Each CPU can have up to 128M bytes of RAM as well as its own disk drive and NIC. ChatTwin cards take up one slot in the chassis. However, they cannot accept PCI or ISA cards.
From a hardware point of view, Cubix's system is more tightly integrated. The server modules Cubix designs and builds run the gamut from low-end CPUs to a 200-MHz Pentium Pro with SMP. CPU cards can have one or more PCI or ISA slots and plug into a single backplane. Although the backplane can be segmented, configuration options are somewhat constrained. Therefore, you have to make some decisions about what you're going to do with a Cubix system before you order it from the vendor.
Everything about Cubix's system looks and feels as if it was engineered by people who know what they're doing. Although tightly integrated with an environmental monitoring system, Cubix server modules are independent of each other and don't depend on a central controller for booting or configuration.
Not so with CommVision. Although it has design and manufacturing capabilities similar to Cubix, it has taken a different approach to system integration. In the CommVision system, one CPU is dedicated to the task of operating the chassis, which isn't such a good idea: If that CPU doesn't boot, none of them boots. However, if that CPU crashes after booting, the others can continue to run.
CommVision's unique feature is its internal PacketBus, which is used for interprocessor communications. Each board in the chassis runs a special driver that makes the PacketBus appear to be a LAN segment. There are PacketBus drivers available for CPUs running Windows 95 and NT, MS-DOS, OS/2 and Novell's Unixware and NetWare.
The PacketBus eliminates the need to have a separate LAN connection for each CPU. Instead, you only need one for the entire chassis, and it has to run Novell's NetWare 4, which acts as a router passing IP and IPX packets from the PacketBus bus to a real LAN. Although it only takes one port to hook all the processors in a CommVision chassis to a LAN, we weren't ecstatic about having to dig out old Novell manuals to get it working.
When you factor in hardware design, reliability features and management applications, consolidated servers look attractive. Our experience with these products was good enough to recommend consolidated servers as a way to reduce management costs and increase reliability.
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