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Spotlight on network servers

It's the heart of your network, so it's essential that you get the best possible performance from your server.From a user perspective, the network file server is often both the most forgotten piece of IT Infrastructure, and the most sorely missed when it is not there.
Written by Mark Snell, Contributor
It's the heart of your network, so it's essential that you get the best possible performance from your server.

From a user perspective, the network file server is often both the most forgotten piece of IT Infrastructure, and the most sorely missed when it is not there.

You alternatively have the ultimate bad guy if the server is down (or worse, is missing data) and the complete hero who manages to get the system back up and running.

You might even get some sympathy for a day or so if you had to pull an all-nighter to make sure everything was back up and running.

Companies depend on their networks, and the servers are a crucial part of the network. If there is no file server there are no files to work on and no printers to print to.

If the server is also the main authentication server for the company or department, users may not be able to access other essential services including e-mail and the Web proxy server.

For this review, we received mostly systems based on an Intel platform of Intel processors and Intel chipsets.

The notable exceptions were the budget systems from Xenon and Hallmark, which ran with VIA chipsets and the Tachyon 1600MP from Emagen which was the only Athlon based machine we received.

It contained a pair of AMD 1600+ processors (running at 1.4GHz) on a Tyan Tiger motherboard based on AMD's 760MP chipset.

One interesting feature we found in the Intel boards was the ability to push the Esc key during the boot sequence to select the boot device.

This means the system can be left to boot directly from the hard disk, but if you need to boot from other media for an update, you can do it quickly, and without the danger of leaving the system set to boot from a floppy, which can of course be disastrous if you leave the floppy behind when you finish.

This article looks at two scenarios, servers for 100 users, and servers for 500 users.
Which OS?

One of the biggest questions facing most companies is which operating system to choose for their servers. Many times this decision is made by the local sysadmin, based on which OS they are most familiar with, rather than necessarily which OS is better for the company in this situation. There are various things to consider when choosing which operating system is right for your situation:

  • What is it doing now?

  • What will it be asked to do in the future?

  • How will it interoperate with the other systems we are running?

  • How much does it cost to purchase?

  • How much will it cost to upgrade?

  • Can we support it?

  • What about uptime?

  • What about security?

Getting it right

Now is not the time to start an OS argument, and there was lots of useful information in last month's discussion "OS Wars", so we will simply comment on a few items.

We know you can build a rock solid Windows server that will run for months without unscheduled downtime.

However, it tends to be much easier to build a simple, more secure Linux server that will give better uptime. Netware servers too, have a history of massively long uptimes.

Cost is a very real issue, for the initial purchase price of the OS to some extent, but even more so for the cost of user licenses.

A Windows 2000 server with 100 client access licenses (CALs) costs around AU$7400 (including GST), while 500 CALs costs more like AU$31,600.

Compare this with may of the versions of Linux you can buy for between AU$30 and AU$1000, or even download for free-with unlimited user licensing and free upgrades ("free" doesn't include the costs of downloading, of course).

Scenario 1: 100-user network services server

Compucon Centaur Server

The Compucon Centaur resides in an average minitower system case. The cabling is well laid out to give immediate access to all the vital components, and a support rail gives the system added rigidity.

This is a simple budget server. It has two 1GHz Processors, which is well and truly enough power for and file sharing or network serving task.

Having only one hard disk and one power supply means there are two failure points, but that is to be expected in a server at this price level.

Dell PowerEdge 500sc

The PowerEdge 500sc was one of three systems to run Linux rather than Windows 2000. This system shipped with Red Hat 7.2, using the 2.4.7-10 kernel.

The system looks on the surface to have performed rather poorly, but it was one of only a couple of systems in the lineup that had a single processor, and the price tag comes in at only AU$3199.

If you were looking for a base system that did not need to grow, at a bargain price, the PowerEdge 500sc would be an excellent choice.

Emagen Tachyon 1600MP

The Tachyon was the only system to use an Athlon processor, the only system with DDR SDRAM, and also the only one running Mandrake Linux (8.1).

This, combined with the 15,000RPM SCSI drives, gave it the highest peak score and overall highest average score in the NetBench tests.

Overall the system fared not as well, due to its higher price tag, which is probably mainly because the more expensive hard disks. If you need the peak performance and are willing to pay for it, this machine has all the right components.

More network servers

HallMark Viewmaster SBS VT

The Small Business Server from Hallmark combines an excellent basic system with a price that is very competitive.

For under AU$4000 you get a Windows 2000 Server (5 CALs) with Dual 1.26GHz processors and an IDE RAID array that performs on par with the best of the servers under a light to medium load.

We would probably have preferred to see the two drives arranged in a RAID 1 configuration to provide some redundancy, but the RAID 0 certainly provided a good speed boost.

The Gigabyte motherboard could also have fit nicely in a 1U rackmount case, as the RAM slots are tilted over on a steep angle. The case the server was submitted in is the same as the Compucon server, though there was no support rail installed.

Xenon Platinum 500 Pedestal Server

The Platinum 500 from Xenon is an extremely well put together server in a sensibly designed case. Everything is well laid out, all the screws and drive rails are provided for full expansion and the system is well supplied with cooling fans.

The two drives were arranged in a RAID 1 configuration, giving complete redundancy but this also had the effect of lowering the overall system speed.

This was compensated for by the installation of two of Intel's newest processors, (and possibly the last in the Pentium III Socket 370 range) the 1.4GHz Pentium III with 512KB cache. The Platinum 500 was also the only server in this class to contain dual Ethernet ports on board.

Red Hat Linux 7.1 was installed on this system, using the 2.4 kernel. Setup was simple and performance was very good-benchmark results were only a sliver behind the Hallmark SBS overall, and the Xenon actually outperformed the Hallmark under both very heavy and very light loads.

Scenario 2: 500-user file server

Acer Altos 1200

Acer's Altos 1200 is an extremely solid, and well-constructed system. Behind the front panel is nothing but drive bays, with 5 x5.25in drive bays and 6 x 3.5in hot-swap drive bays.

Beside the drive bays are a number of small fans to keep the drives cool.

Inside, the system is open and spacious, with easy access to everything. In case you can't find something, Acer has attached a set of useful notices on the inside cover, with most of the information you need quickly to hand.

The server has a host of redundancy features including hot-swappable fans, hot-swappable power supplies, dual Ethernet ports, and hot-swappable hard disks.

There are even a few extra spaces for more hot-swappable fans to be added. One slight drawback to the dual power supplies is that there is only a single power cable, which presents the risk that the system might be unplugged accidentally; this could be greatly reduced by having two power cables.

The five disks were arranged in a RAID 5 configuration, which tends to be unusual these days. Many vendors choose a three-disk array, but in this case, because Acer used the smaller 18GB drives, they needed the extra drives to make up the required storage space.

The system included 1GB of RAM, which added little to the file serving performance, but would be useful if you decided to have other applications served from this system.

The Dual Channel SCSI backplane could be useful if you needed to stream large chunks of data to or from the server.

The system did not come out on top in the benchmark scores, but this was quite adequately compensated for by slim price tag. The system's costs in terms of dollars per transaction came in the second best at only AU$72 per transaction.

Compaq ML370 G2

The Compaq ML370 G2 (Generation 2) is loaded with all the features you would expect from one of the leading tier-one vendors.

The machine has many redundant features including hot-swappable hard disks, fans and PCI slots.

There is room for an additional hot-swappable power supply, and the RAID card has a battery backup to keep the cache alive in case of a power outage.

All the cables throughout the system are covered in a woven nylon sheath for added protection from jamming or creasing. The cables are neatly tied out of the way to make the unit very easy to access.

Compaq's SmartStart and Insight Manager software are excellent tools for getting your server set up and keeping it up to date with the latest driver and BIOS updates.

One additional useful feature are the UID buttons and lights on the front and rear of the unit, which enable you to know which system is which in a large rack of identical systems.

If you needed to replace any part of a server, you could turn the light on, either from the front, from the rear, or using software, then walk to the system and be able to tell exactly which machine was the one that needed fixing.

We had some teething problems with the ML370, caused by an intermittent incompatibility between the internal Ethernet controller and our Acer switch. This was remedied by adding a separate gigabit Ethernet card (still running at 100Mb/sec).

Dell PowerEdge 2550

The PowerEdge 2550 shipped in a slimline 2U rackmount case. The top of the case is hinged on the edges and splits down the length of the server in the middle to give access to the internals.

This works well when the server is sitting on a bench, but it may be a little difficult to manage if the server is in a rack.

The server includes various redundancy features including hot-swappable power supplies, hot-swappable hard disks and a battery backed RAID controller.

The power supplies are removed from the inside, and are rather difficult to get out. On the upside though, each power supply has its own power cord, which increases redundancy.

The Dell performed very well, with the second best overall performance score and it was the best of the servers tested when under heavy loads.

This system was a little more expensive than some of its competitors, mainly due to the rackmount case and the service contact offered.

Hallmark Viewmaster "Duad DS" Intel-validated Server

The Duad DS is an Intel-validated Server, which means its configuration is built to a recipe that Intel likes.

From a practical point of view, this means the server has Intel Processors with Intel fans on an Intel motherboard, all housed in an Intel Hudson II case.

It also means that the memory, and any adaptors included with the system have been thoroughly tested by Intel to guarantee there won't be any problems.

The Hudson II case is well designed with lots of room to move and plenty of extra drive bays for storage.

There is plenty of cooling, though some of the fans are a little odd in that they are by design mounted in high-density foam. The case even has a single USB port on the front, which is useful if you want to boot from a portable USB device for troubleshooting.

The server has a host of redundancy features including hot-swappable fans, hot-swappable power supplies (with dual power cables) and hot-swappable hard disks.

The system was shipped with 15,000RPM hard disks, which gave the system a performance boost throughout the tests, especially under heavy loads.

This server had such a lean price tag of only AU$6645 that it was easily the best overall return on investment with a score of only AU$48 per transaction. All the features are there, though the one thing you would probably look at investing in is an extra service contract.

HP NetServer LP2000r

HP's Netserver is designed in a very modular fashion in a 2U rackmount case. After removing the lid, you are presented with a series of covered areas.

The drive bays have a mesh over them, the PCI slots and power supplies are enclosed, and a pair of blowers covers the processor and RAM sockets.

This system does not really make for easy access to most of the components. The exception to this is the front panel, which easily holds six hot-swappable disks as well as room for a full-size CD-ROM and floppy, and plenty of indicator lights.

HP was the only supplier not to include a second processor in this scenario, but the results showed that it did not hurt the system performance at all.

There were several redundancy features including hot-swappable power supplies with independent power inputs and hot-swappable hard disks.

HP took an industry standard approach to disk configuration; they reserved two drives as RAID 1 (mirrored) for the system and then set up three drives in a RAID 5 configuration for data. This gives the benefit of redundancy to the system and allows a larger chunk of space for data.

This is an excellent server, but it is really rather too expensive compared to the others in this scenario.

Xenon Platinum ISP2200 2U Rack Server

The ISP2200 is another 2U rackmount case, but this time the system is running Red Hat Linux 7.1, the only system in this scenario to do so.

The case is designed with six hot-swappable drive bays in the front, and you can even remove the CD and floppy, and use that bay as a seventh drive bay. Even after all of this, there are still two 3.5in drive bays available for a DAT drive or similar.

The server had system information inside the lid for easy reference, and an ID button/light system similar to Compaq's. It had redundancy features including hot-swappable hard disks and hot-swappable power supplies, each with its own power source.

The RAID controller in this system is a new Zero channel RAID controller that Intel has available, that makes use of the existing SCSI channels and adds RAID functionality.

The system was powered by a pair of pre-production 1.4GHz Intel Pentium III processors, in fact the same two processors as the system Xenon submitted for the other scenario, since Xenon was only able to get two of the processors for testing.

Full retail volumes should be available by the time you read this. The system performed reasonably well, but with a cost per transaction of about $95 it was ousted by some of the less expensive competition.

The March 2002 issue of ZDNet Australia's Technology & Business Magazine contains reviews of servers, including Editor's Choice Awards for the best products. For subscription information, visit "target="_blank" class="c-regularLink" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">Technology & Business.

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