Servers on a budget Acer Altos R300 Altech Apollo 64-R HP Proliant DL 320 Xenon Radon Duo ASR Specifications How We Tested Sample Scenario Editor's choice About RMIT Test LabsNeed a new server but only have AU$2500 to spend? The range of options is surprisingly good as long as you're willing to do without some of the fancy features.
Need a new server but only have AU$2500 to spend? The range of options is surprisingly good as long as you're willing to do without some of the fancy features.
As I sit here in my "server" room racking my brains about how to start this review I begin to realise what a techno-geek I really am. Having a custom-built four-square extension to my home has its benefits Ã¢â‚¬" complete with separate regulated power, UPS backup, 11 full-height server racks, and an upgrade from my previous broadband link to a synchronous link complete with a full range of static IP addresses.
Why? It isn't like I haven't got an office to go to during the day, complete with very similar equipment I didn't have to pay for. Yes, despite popular belief, we at the Test Lab never get to keep the goodies we are sent each month to review or test for clients, unless of course we are happy to hand over the money and buy them ourselves. This is why I am destined to be penniless.
I have all of this basic IT infrastructure technology in place at my home for the pure pleasure of playing with servers and their associated applications and operating systems and working them together. Not to mention the plethora of peripherals and appliances found in the average datacentre such as, firewalls, routers, remote access devices, drive and backup arrays, access points, switches and the like. I honestly must be really sick to take delight in making something work like this just for fun, particularly when it has no real commercial value except to increase my personal knowledge of those devices.
So I was sitting here mulling over why anyone would really need a server for less than AU$2500 and what was I going to write about them. Most IT engineers consider any server for less than AU$6000 as being more of a glorified desktop than a server. But these low-cost servers still have their own unique niche and in an age where utility computing has become the new catch cry, these machines fit very well. Also, in the last 12 months we have tested blade servers, high-end servers, Xeon servers, Web servers, etc. So what was left? Sub-AU$2500 servers of course.
When one really takes the time to sit and contemplate the subject, there is a wide range of applications these sub-AU$2500 machines can be configured to support. There are also many auxiliary services these servers can provide, from small or branch office data storage facilities and document sharing servers, to group e-mail and/or Web servers. Almost any task that can be offloaded from the main servers would suit these machines and indeed could increase the life of their bigger siblings by handling the chores that were beginning to slow down the other units.
They could even be configured as prototype test servers in a large IT environment to allow project managers to simulate what-if scenarios and to test configurations before going live or before committing big dollars to larger servers.
Or how about clustering them to run the online Web service, sharing the load across many servers and allowing easy future scalability as well as a high level of redundancy at an affordable price? It may indeed be better to buy 10 servers for AU$25,000 and cluster them than one server for the same AU$25,000. Certainly easier to add another few machines to the cluster in the future than have to ditch the one server and spend even more money on a bigger server. This clustering attitude also helps to mitigate the risk of data loss and potential single-point hardware failure risks.
So let's look at the products we received from Acer, Altech, HP, and XENON. We also asked Apple, Dell, Hallmark, IBM, Ipex, NEC, Sun, and Westan to submit products but we received a pretty low response to this category.
Acer Altos R300
The Altos R300 from Acer is a very compact server. The server did not ship with any operating system installed. However it did come with a handy utility called Acer EasyBuild v5.3 which contained management software as well as installation wizards and device drivers. We decided to install Microsoft Windows 2000 Server on the Acer and this was completed with the minimum of fuss.
The server houses two 3.5in IDE drive units which are connected via a Promise TX2 RAID card, thereby giving the administrator security in the knowledge that they would be able to configure the system to hardware mirror the data being stored on the drive unit. The power supply is a single unit with no redundancy and rated at 203 watts.
The machine was equipped with two 40GB IDE HDD units, a 3GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, and 512MB RAM (a single Apacer ECC PC2100 module). There is a integrated slim CD-ROM and slim FDD unit.
Internally the expansion is understandably limited, the Promise RAID controller occupies one PCI slot while there is one spare PCI-X slot, however this is only one of the smaller half-height types and the length is also very restricted. Underneath the lid Ã¢â‚¬" when it is removed Ã¢â‚¬" is a handy quick reference guide. There are three small but very noisy fans drawing air through ducting across the CPU heatsink and out through the rear. This machine would have to be the noisiest out of all four servers in this review; the sound of 40 of these servers in a rack would be quite overwhelming. But it is far better to be noisy and cool than quiet and overheating. And fitting this much punch into such a small space must have its compromises.
Overall this is a very neat and relatively powerful server. Definitely on the small side which depending on your requirements may be perfect, providing additions such as other cards and tape backup units will not be needed. The overall design and build quality is excellent, certainly in the top 10 percent of the servers we have seen in the recent past.
Very good OS support: MS, Linux, Unix, and Novell. Good range
Very limited expansion capabilities.
Excellent price for a utility server, particularly considering
Three-year onsite next-day warranty included. Quicker response
Altech Apollo 64-R
If you commissioned a gamer to build you a server then I would imagine that they possibly couldn't come any closer than the technicians at Altech have with the Apollo 64-R. This is certainly a machine that is outside the square when it comes to servers. It is definitely the first server we have seen at the Test Lab which has composite and S-Video TV outputs, surround sound audio output, SPDIF optical audio in and out, a firewire port, and an ultra-bright LED pipe projecting red light out the rear of the machine. And the performance Altech has squeezed from the AMD Athlon 64 processor running Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server is very good, coming in at second place behind the Acer machine in many tests.
The chassis this machine is built around is a very black Antech-designed 4RU chassis of very sturdy construction. The power supply is an Antec 430watt "true power" unit and there is an option for either redundant power supply or a redundant hot spare power supply. Given the 4RU chassis, these options are reasonable and certainly would add to the appeal of this machine if it was to be used as a server.
The Apollo 64-R has 512MB of memory (single Corsair PC3200 module) and two 80GB Seagate Barracuda serial ATA (SATA) drive units. The server is equipped with full height DVD-RW and FDD units. The mainboard has a VIA chipset and is manufactured by A-Bit; it is definitely not a server board or chipset, however it does appear to be of very good quality and construction.
The front of the unit, has plenty of expansion: five spare 5.25in drive bays and two spare 3.5in bays. Two of the 5.25in bays are taken up with the HDD units, but you would be very hard pressed to run out of expansion room in this chassis.
Internally there are five PCI slots free, but this mainboard has no PCI-X slots at all. There are two large fans on the rear of the chassis as well as two more large fans on the power supply, these combine with the medium sized fan mounted on the CPU heatsink and there are just two more smaller fans, one located on the mainboard chipset and another mounted at the end of the ultra bright red LED exhaust system.
Overall, this is a glorified desktop performance machine built into a rack mount chassis. It would be much better to see the loss of some features such as the audio subsystem and the TV outputs in favour of a secondary 10/100/1000 network interface, and at least one serial port.
PCI-X slots would also be nice particularly in such a large chassis where they could be used. The more useless features incorporated into a machine, the more potential problems/faults can occur. The inclusion of the DVD-RW is a stroke of genius, especially if the machine is to be used as a test bed and needs regular imaging and backups completed. The level of expansion is excellent, most notably for externally accessible devices. Now where have I put those games discs?
Average OS support. Many ports included but not needed in
a server. Missing serial port.
Lots of space in the chassis, but mainboard only takes PCI,
not PCI-X. The option to add a redundant power supply is also very good.
Well priced for performance, pity the mainboard was not more
One-yeaR RTB warranty included is below average, however can
be extended to three years onsite for only AU$121.
HP Proliant DL 320
Yet again HP has submitted a very impressive server for this review. When HP finds something that works well, the company sticks with it. This way, HP ensures those IT departments that have used Proliant server products in the past are not disappointed. The small things like the integrated lights-out management tool, the management console support, the UID LEDs, and the technical diagrams/details on the inside of the chassis lid are all there, even in this most entry-level unit.
In the server is a single 40GB Maxtor hard disk drive unit, an Intel Pentium 4 processor, and 1GB RAM (strangely comprising four modules, 1 x 512MB, 1 x 256MB and 2 x 128MB all of which were PC2100 ECC Registered). There is a slim CD-ROM and floppy disk drive unit. The machine was running Windows Server 2003.
The front panel has no external expansion bays. Almost the full width of the server is ventilation grilles behind HP's stylish front bezel.
Internally there is one full-length/width PCI-X expansion slot available as well as one spare 3.5in HDD unit bay. There are eight very small internal fans near the CPU heatsink and there are two small fans on the front of the power supply unit which is rated at 180 watts. Considering there are so many fans, the server itself is relatively quiet when running.
Overall, this is a neat and very well-designed server, particularly the cooling system. However the performance was a little hit and miss under our testing, this may in part be due to the operating system.
Also the use of a single hard disk and mixed memory is a little strange, particularly in a server. When you can buy a 40GB HDD unit for under AU$150, it begs the question, why not put in a second one? These factors contribute to make the similar Acer Altos R300 stand out.
Configured correctly, the HP Proliant DL320 would possibly give the Acer a closer run for its money, but in this state the HP was obviously disadvantaged.
Xenon Radon Duo ASR
The Xenon Radon Duo ASR was the only machine in this review running Linux (Red Hat). For a sub-AU$2500 machine, a lower-cost operating system really makes sense as more hardware goodies can be packed into the chassis for the price. OK, I don't want to start the war over the cost of servicing and supporting a Linux box. Suffice to say, if your technicians and administrators know what they are doing, they will do the best job they can with the tools they choose.
The Xenon server was also the only one to be shipped in a 2RU chassis, and this chassis, manufactured by SuperO, is definitely the best 2U chassis we have seen in the Test Lab. It incorporates six SATA removable drive bays at the front. It was the only server in the review to have plenty of room for expansion.
The machine was supplied to us configured with an Intel Pentium 4 CPU, 512MB RAM (two Legend 256MB DDR400 modules), two 80GB SATA Maxtor HDD units, and slim CD-ROM and FDD units.
Internally there are four large fans, as well as the Intel CPU fan. There is also the space on the PCI-X riser to fit two full-height/length PCI-X cards. The power supply is a single 550-watt unit however a dual redundant 500-watt unit is available as an option. There is plenty of ventilation grilles along both sides as well as the rear of the machine.
The Xenon server is very well constructed with complementary components, the performance test under WebBench left a little to be desired, however with some tweaking of Linux and/or the Apache Web server, or with a Microsoft server operating system, the performance would be in the same ballpark as the other servers in this review. Like the HP server, the test results are certainly nothing to be worried about.
Which operating systems does the server support? What port and network interfaces dose it have
How much expansion capability is available such as disk, memory, peripherals, etc?
Do you get your money's worth or are there better deals available?
What warranties and service contracts are available? Can you get prompt service at a reasonable price?
We used WebBench v4.1 to test the server performance of each machine. For the Windows-based machines, we ran Business Winstone 2004 v1, Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004, and WinBench 99.
WebBench shows the relative performance as a Web server. We ran requests up to 70 client load with simultaneous transactions. The servers averaged between 5000 to 8000 requests per second from a 40-client load upwards which is quite acceptable for a server at this price point.
Business Winstone 2004 shows the relative performance when running Windows-based business applications such as Microsoft Office.
Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 shows the relative performance when running Windows-based multimedia applications, such as Lightwave and Adobe Premiere.
Winbench 99 provides a facility to test subsystems such as disk and video; we ran the disk subsystem tests on these servers.
While most servers are not generally expected to be used for business applications, we thought running these tests on these hybrid machines -- that is a cross between a dedicated server platform and a decent desktop -- would show their relative performance at the very least.
Especially look at the Altech: it is an AMD Athlon 64 desktop performance machine in a server chassis. None of these servers had SCSI disk drive units, all were either SATA or IDE type drives; some had a level of RAID functionality.
We could not run the Windows-based tests on the Xenon platform as it was running Linux. Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 continually failed when run on the Altech server, therefore we could not record a score for that machine, likewise Business Winstone 2004 failed each time on the HP and we could not log a score.
Overall the test results were quite good. Or particular note are the Altech results. While not really a server, it goes to show what a decent performance-oriented machine can do under the WebBench server type loads. The Altech achieved almost the same score as the Acer server, certainly never falling more than 500 or so requests per second across the whole test. The Altech also performed very well in the disk and Winstone tests. It was also the only AMD processor-based machine in the review and was running Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server.
Interestingly the major differences in performance between the Intel-based machines were perhaps due to their operating systems. The Xenon was running Red Hat Linux, the Acer was running Microsoft Windows 2000 Server, and the HP running Microsoft Windows Server 2003. The Xenon server's WebBench results, while quite consistent, were a little on the low side. This should not count against it necessarily; with a little bit of Linux and Apache tweaking, the user is bound to get results in the same ballpark as the other machines.
The Acer results running WebBench were both high and consistent. The HP's WebBench results looked promising initially but once it hit a 40 or 60 client load it dropped off dramatically, perhaps this was due to the operating system more than the server itself.
Company: Loos Ethics Consulting
This company wants to purchase rackmounted servers to run as a cluster for a new database application.
Approximate budget:Ã‚Â No higher than AU$2500 RRP including GST per server, not including operating system client licenses.
Requires:Ã‚Â Four rackmounted servers.
Concerns: The company doesn't have a lot to spend and needs to make sure the servers don't blow the budget. Performance of the servers and ease of management will be key factors, any redundancy features will be highly regarded. Operating system must offer reasonable support for clustering and load balancing, and the preference is for Linux.
Best solution: The clear winner here is the XENON server. Not only was XENON the only vendor to pre-configure its server with Linux, it was also one of the most scalable submitted, with up to six SATA drives, the option for a redundant power supply and plenty of room inside the 2U chassis for expansion cards. This machine tops the pops.
Look out for...
Redundancy. Never compromise redundancy for price, particularly data redundancy. At this price point, power, network, and memory redundancy would be hard to find, but at the very minimum ensure that there are two physical disks that can be configured in a mirrored drive array.
Application. Ensure that the server is matched to the application proposed for the equipment. At these prices it is a fine balancing act to ensure every ounce of performance is applied correctly without underestimating the load on the server and having to replace it prematurely due to poor performance.
Plan for the future. As the application grows in time and a new server is required, ensure that there will be a place for the budget server you are commissioning now. There is no point in replacing it in 12 months time with a AU$6000 server and throwing out a perfectly good AU$2500 server. Unless you have some plan for it in 12 months, you may as well save the AU$2500 now and go and buy the AU$6000 server instead.
Support. Ensure that good maintenance contracts are available with quick parts turnaround in the event of a failure, as these servers don't have the same redundancy levels as their bigger siblings. Be well prepared for a worst-case scenario and ensure that your vendor will have the parts replaced as quickly as possible to have your equipment back up and running. The flip side to this is don't ever use a server with little redundancy for a mission-critical application or else you may quickly find out taking that path turns out to generate a new employment search. Some vendors offer spare parts kits for servers; it is common sense to keep one or two of these handy in the tech room.
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine. Click here for subscription information. Editor's Choice
The first award goes to XENON server for its expansion and drive/power redundancy capabilities, even though its performance wasn't the best. Servers these days need to be running 100 percent of the time.
It is far better to sacrifice outright performance for the safety of redundancy (particularly power supply and drive), than it is to sacrifice redundancy for performance. End users may not notice the difference in speed between two very similar servers, however they definitely will notice if one suddenly isn't working at all.
The second award goes to Acer. This new Acer server is a true competitor to the other tier-one brands. Its 1RU size and very shallow depth combined with its performance at this price point certainly make it a worthy consideration for anyone looking to set up a cluster of relatively fast servers.
RMIT IT Test Labs is an independent testing institution based in Melbourne, Victoria, performing IT product testing for clients such as IBM, Coles-Myer, and a wide variety of government bodies. In the Labs' testing for T&B, they are in direct contact with the clients supplying products and the magazine is responsible for the full cost of the testing. The findings are the Labs' own -- only the specifications of the products to be tested are provided by the magazine. For more information on RMIT, please contact the Lab Manager, Steven Turvey.