Beware PCs in servers' clothing

Matt Loney: Would you expect to find an S-Video out port on your Web server? Or a Mic socket? Neither did we. Just take a close look next time you buy a server.

When is a server not a server? When it's got microphone and headphone sockets on the front, perhaps? Or how about an S-VHS/Composite socket, or even FireWire, on the back? No? Then how about the fact that it is built from low cost PC components destined for the desktop?

OK, pretty much anything can be used as a server these days; everything from tiny embedded systems -- there is even talk of light switches becoming mini Web servers -- to PCs that are given an extra lease of life in Linux clusters. Most Linux distributions come with the option of creating either a workstation setup or a server setup on the target computer, and some versions of Windows have been known to ship with simple personal Web server software.

But if you intend to buy yourself or your company a new server, there are certain things you expect, and this has more to do with hardware than software. You might reasonably expect a little redundancy; for example, RAID support to spread your data over two or more hard disks in case one fails. You might even expect error correcting code memory.

So those of us at ZDNet UK who are geeky enough to occasionally find humour in tech specs almost choked on our baguettes when a PR sent us the details of a new server being shown off by a relatively new company at a recent expo. For reasons that will become clear, I'm not inclined to name the company concerned. Let's just say they pitch themselves as a new Linux server vendor who "is going head to head with the Sun Cobalt Qube3." Suffice to say you probably have not heard of them.

Neither had we until their PR phoned us. And phoned us again, and again, asking if we would meet the client at this recent expo. Now usually, I'm the sort of chap who finds it hard to say no, but in this case I found it surprisingly easy. Why? Because the list of specs started getting silly when they mentioned the IEEE 1394 interface, well known for connecting video cameras and other home entertainment devices to computers, but not widely used in servers to the best of my knowledge. Things quickly descended from silly, swiftly passing through sublime and into the ridiculous, with the inclusion of S-video and composite TV-out terminal. Not something you normally expect to see on a server. Mind you, we were impressed by the matching keyboard and mouse -- something that no self-respecting server should be without.

Of course, once at the expo, I couldn't resist removing my name badge and dropping by the stand just to see what they would try to sell me, and they lived down to my every expectation.

For start, the server which "is going head to head with the Sun Cobalt Qube3" is actually a Shuttle PC. If you have never seen these, they are the coolest-looking small form factor desktop PCs around. And if you have never seen one, it's probably because they are hard to find in the shops here by virtue of the fact that Shuttle sells them as a 'bare bones system' -- that is as a case with motherboard, power supply and very clever cooling system that uses heat pipes to help the fan to run quietly while you watch your DVD (drive not supplied) on it.

All the rest -- processor, memory, hard disk and CD/DVD drives -- you have to supply yourself. There is only a single PCI slot, but networking, audio, USB and FireWire and, of course, S-Video out is built in to the motherboard.

These really are cool PCs -- for the living room. They really are not meant to be used as servers. For a start there is no RAID support. Now this is not something you absolutely need in a server, but it is certainly desirable. Then there is the lack of ECC memory support, which certainly is desirable in a server.

So I asked a representative on the company's stand why their server had microphone and headphone sockets on the front.

Ahh well, came the reply, those are not used.

And what about the USB port, I asked. Why would you want that on a Web server (for that is what the device was being advertised as)? USB isn't used.

So what about the FireWire and S-Video Out round the back?

Well, you see we have modified the motherboard.

How?

By installing a new kernel.

Well, they certainly would have to install a new kernel because Shuttle bare-bone systems, which are sold without hard disks or memory of any sort, leave the factory without an operating system -- of which the kernel is, well, the kernel. But modifying the motherboard? Pull the other one.

Then there was the price. £800. Last time I checked, similar Shuttle systems were selling for about £150. Even the addition of a bit of memory, hard disk, CD-Rom, floppy disk and matching keyboard and mouse would not add more than £100 to that price. Fair enough, the company had installed the Linux operating system, together with server applications (which can all be obtained for, umm, nothing, anyway) and a Web-based graphical user interface. The computer would indeed therefore work as a server right out of the box, but I for one remain sceptical. If companies are going to sell servers, they should sell server hardware, and not just server software on top of home PC hardware. Companies that do this simply do not deserve the oxygen of publicity. And if you're in the market to buy a server, just make sure you have a close look at the hardware to make sure it actually looks like a server.

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