Details in tech journalism - a Sun Shiny example

o what do we know for sure? that no two sets of details are identical; that the people writing these things don't do their homework; that critical information like the gain in overall performance or the value of Solaris containers doesn't make it into the stories; and, that the PR group responsible for getting the information out is no better at detail than they people they send it to.

Last Thursday Sun issued two sequential press releases signed by the same spokesman. The first, under the title "Sun Expands Solaris/SPARC CMT Innovation Leadership", announced the widespread availability of the 4GB DIMMS in the UltraSPARC T1 line, the corresponding megahertz rate increase to 1.4Ghz, progress on the "Neptune" TCP/IP co-processor, and the fact that the first next generation "Rock" UltraSPARC had taped out January 3rd.

The second, under the title "Sun Customers Shine With Datacenter Deployment of Sun Fire(TM) 'CoolThreads' Servers Powered by the Solaris(TM) 10 Operating System (OS)", offered quotable blurts from Vonage, Concentric, and PlanetOut.com about the T1/T2 Coolthreads processors.

Here's the one from Concentric:

 

Concentric.com: Providing highly scalable business web hosting, email hosting, groupware and perimeter email security that cost-effectively meets the needs of today's growing businesses.

Concentric.com has currently deployed nine Sun Fire T2000 and T1000 servers. Each server increases capacity six to eight times over the previous generation of hardware that it replaces. As a result, they have purchased five additional systems. Concentric's aggressively multi-threaded and thread-pooled software runs very well on the 16 'processor' configurations helping Concentric.com achieve near linear performance gains.

That should, of course, have been "32", not "16", processors but the important point here is that I found no press reports as of late Thursday quoting this particular blurt.

Here's the Vonage one:

 

Vonage: A leading provider of broadband telephone services with over two million subscriber lines as of September 30, 2006.

Over the last year, Vonage has deployed both Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 servers running the Solaris 10 operating system to power its ticketing system for managing customer support. With the Sun systems, Vonage is experiencing a dramatic savings in power and cooling, is using 50 percent less space, and can now support significantly more users per servers. Given its widely acknowledged reliability and long-standing dominance in the telecommunications industry, Solaris was an obvious OS choice for Vonage.

Nobody quoted this one either.

On the other hand, a google search done late on the 18th (early on the 19th) showed 21 hits for key words from the press releases. 16 of these were different sites showing the same story, by IDG's Robert Mullins - a story that unfortunately starting with a confidence destroying error contradicted in both press releases: "Sun Microsystems Inc. is moving forward with plans to develop a processor with as many as 16 cores on one piece of silicon, quadruple the capacity available now."

Of the remaining five, three focused on the Rock announcements to the exclusion of the blurt material and the other two choose, as Mullins did, to quote the blurt attributed to Tom Cignarella, "senior director of technical operations at Planet Out Inc."

I don't know why, but I'm sure your guess won't differ from mine once you read the introduction to this version of story as retold on internetnews.com:

 

One happy Sun Fire customer is Tom Cignarella, senior director of technical operations for Planet Out, which runs one of the largest gay and lesbian community sites on the Internet, which serves more than five million unique visitors per month.

When Cignarella took over operations less than a year ago, he inherited a mess of more than 500 low-performance machines, most of them 32-bit. "They probably never should have been put into use," he told internetnews.com.

Gradually, he's been consolidating the systems behind T1000s, going from 500 machines down to under 200. This has resulted in a 40 percent reduction in power commitment, but more importantly, a lot less room being taken up in the company's facilities and significant performance improvements.

Alternative processors were never a consideration. "From a speed standpoint, based on some testing I've seen, Niagara do quite well. They are quite a bit faster and cooler than Intel and AMD chips. I know AMD was on the power consumption bandwagon at lot sooner than Intel, but I think Sun was way ahead of them," he said.

If you check with netcraft you'll find he's still running some Solaris 8 machines with the Netscape (iPlanet) web server - something that would indeed require running in 32bit mode on 64bit hardware like the late nineties 220R.

But note some of the other details: he reduced his machine count "from 500 machines down to under 200", i.e. more than 60%, but his power use by only about 40% -implying that he's got a major league space heater somewhere that's unaffected by the processor change. Some combination of an inefficient UPS, a nineties Cisco network contraption, and an incredibly inefficient SAN would be my guess, but you really have to stretch credulity to get the numbers to work.

Since that's just a guess, checking a few other stories might help clarify matters. Consider, therefore, what Mullins told his readers at  Infoworld and fifteen other sites:

 

Replacing older Sun servers with Sun's T1000 servers produced demonstrable savings for Planet Out Inc., a San Francisco-based company that operates multiple Web sites for the gay and lesbian community.

"We had a very challenged operational environment," said Tom Cignarella, senior director of technical operations at Planet Out. "We had a ridiculous number of servers for the traffic we had."

Planet Out completed in August 2006 the replacement of as many as 400 outdated servers with 60 T1000s, a move which improved the efficiency of its system, reduced the space needed for its data center and cut its power consumption by 40 percent, Cignarella said.

Notice that some of the numbers are different - the precise 40% is the same, but Mullins presents Cignarella as replacing 400 older Sun servers with 60 T1000s. Now it's possible, since 160 is less than 200, that both reports are right, but this one makes the power discrepancy seem worse - so lets look at a third recital, this one from eweek's coverage to see if that helps:

 

Tom Cignarella, senior director of technical operations for Planetout.com, a San Francisco media and entertainment company that serves the gay community, started to replace older Sun servers with new Sun Fire T1000 servers, which use UltraSPARC T1 Niagara processors, within the last seven months.

By using these servers, combined with Sun's Solaris Containers virtualization technology, Cignarella was able to replace 250 servers with just 20 systems. Cignarella also said the new Sun servers helped him reduce power consumption by 40 percent.

"It was just overwhelming the number of servers and the number of applications we had running," Cignarella said. "We were paying a lot for power, and we just maxed out on power consumption. It was not so much a space issue, but we did consolidate what we had."

No, still 40%, but now it's 250 servers replaced by 20 T1000s - that's credible from a performance perspective if he's replacing older 220s, but still leaves us guessing about the power issue.

So what did the original press releases say? - available, by the way, from prnewswire.com a full day before they appeared on either yahoo or Sun's own news release site.

 

"Sun has hit a home run with the combination of Solaris 10 running on the UltraSPARC T1-based servers," said Tom Cignarella, senior director of technical operations at Planet Out Inc. "The performance is outstanding, and updated features like Solaris Containers which allow us to create zones are easy to set up yet extremely powerful. We were able to replace nearly 300 aging servers with 20 Sun Fire T1000's, and we have greater capacity than before. The T1000 has no competition at this time, and what Sun has done makes other new servers seem outdated."

...

PlanetOut replaced 300 older systems with 20 Sun Fire T2000 servers running the Solaris 10 OS. The performance gains have been dramatic, and since Planetout was running out of datacenter room, the space gains have been equally important. Although the power and cooling benefits and the Solaris (TM) Containers feature were not initial drivers of the purchase, they have proven as important, if not more so, than the performance gains.

Huh? This says first that 20 T1000s replaced "nearly 300 aging servers" and then that 20 T2000s replaced 300 older systems - but there's nothing to suggest that he had nearly 600 to start with, and even two times 20 doesn't make it to 60. This press release, in other words, is as internally contradictory as the reports based on it - FYI: Mark Richardson signed both releases for SunPR.

Do a bit more tracing and you find that the first paragraph is taken from Sun's general list of T1 testimonials while the second appears to be new - unfortunately it's also the one that offers the most precise information ("PlanetOut replaced 300 older systems with 20 Sun Fire T2000 servers") while changing the model identification - and using a number of new servers that only eweek picked up on.

So where did the other 40 T1 servers everyone else mentioned come from? And that 40% power savings estimate? It's not mentioned at all in the source documents.

So what do we know for sure? that no two sets of details are identical; that the people writing these things don't do their homework; that critical information like the gain in overall performance or the value of Solaris containers doesn't make it into the stories; and, that the PR group responsible for getting the information out is no better at detail than they people they send it to.

 

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