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Why would you want one of these consolidated servers anyway?

By Joel Snyder
Network World, 8/18/97

Any time you've got more than two PC-based servers sitting next to each other, you've got a good reason to consider using a consolidated server. Why? Consolidated servers offer you better reliability and manageability. Plus they come in a more compact size than the equivalent number of PC-based servers.

Just think of it. Consolidated servers can help you overcome these deficiencies in using multiple PC servers:

  • A messy, inefficient use of space.
  • The danger of having monitors and keyboards balanced on top of each other.
  • The tangle of cables, hidden under raised floors or above ceilings or not, that lowers reliability and increases maintenance costs.
  • Limited airflow for systems that are not designed to be in close proximity.
  • A high mean time to repair (MTTR) brought on by the design of PC cases.
  • The difficulty in detecting failed systems and restarting them, especially if you have to leave your office and trek to the computer room.
  • And you avoid using systems that were designed as personal workstations that may not be up to the task of pulling a tour or duty in the computer room duty and have many single-points-of-failure.

Furthermore, consolidated servers increase reliability by using redundant parts especially fans and power supplies, which are notorious for being among the least reliable parts of any computing system, along with disk drives and cables.

For example, the ChatCom product we tested has six chassis cooling fans plus little fans on each Pentium CPUs) and four power supplies. Cables are also kept to a minimum, with direct connections between systems, power supplies, disks, network interface cards (NIC), and other components, either on-board or through an internal bus.

Over-engineering for power and cooling is just one way consolidated servers increase reliability over their desktop cousins. Because consolidated servers are designed from the ground-up to be servers, as opposed to workstations, they use heavier duty power supplies capable of driving high-end CPUs and high-speed disks.

Management issues are another reason to look at consolidated servers. There's nothing revolutionary in the management products built into consolidated servers, but the packaging and integration make it easy to monitor and control dozens of systems. For example, Cubix offers its GlobalVision management utility to watch out for failure of components such as a fans, over heating conditions, and locked processors via a remote management workstation using SNMP.

The other products we reviewed have some management capabilities but they don't quite match what Cubix offers.

One type of management improvement that is common among all three of the consolidated servers we tested is physical management. These systems have fewer external cables and take up a fraction of the room required for individual PCs. For example, in the CommVision product, the entire chassis is linked to a LAN via one port, reducing the spaghetti of cabling. Each of the CPUs in the chassis has a bus connection to that LAN port. All the consolidated servers also include board-based LAN and hard disk controllers, which further simplifies management.

Management in some specific application areas is even simpler, because a consolidated server is just one part of a complete turnkey system. For example, in its RemoteServ/IS product Cubix offers a packaged server that includes all the hardware and software you need to build a combination remote node/remote control system. This can save you literally hundreds of hours configuring hardware and software. The other vendors also offer pre-packaged servers for remote access and other applications. Cubix and ChatCom, however, are the ones who have their acts together, with Cubix in the lead with the most useful configurations in the packaged products it offers.

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