Think of Sun Microsystems and you're likely to think of big RISC-based servers and high-end workstations running the vendor's own Solaris operating system. However, that's not all the company has to offer. Industry-standard hardware based on Intel and AMD processors have been on the Sun books for some time, and Xeon 5500 platforms have recently been added that more than measure up when compared to the better-known competition.
Sun’s new Xeon 5500 lineup is pretty impressive, starting with an unusual low-cost 1U server (the Sun Fire X2270) with a restricted specification for those on a budget . Higher up the scale comes a more configurable up-market 1U offering (the X4170) aimed, primarily, at HPC buyers. For this review we're concentrating on the 2U space where Sun, again, has two models to choose from.
Sun also makes industry-standard servers, such as the Xeon 5500-based Sun Fire X4270 (top, with 16 2.5in. drives) and the X4275 (bottom, with 12 3.5in. drives).
Actually, that’s a little misleading as the Sun Fire X4270 and X4275 are essentially the same server, with exactly the same chassis, identical motherboards, processor and memory options. The only real difference is in the storage: the X4270 has sixteen 2.5in. hot-swap drive bays, whereas the X4275 is aimed at customers looking for greater capacity, offering twelve 3.5in. drive bays and a choice of drives in capacities up to 2TB per spindle. SATA, SAS and SSD storage can be specified for both configurations (SSD is limited to just 32GB per drive), with an LSI-derived RAID controller included in the spec as standard.
Unusually, the same motherboard is used in both 1U and 2U Sun Fire servers, featuring the usual dual socket arrangement with processors next to each other and the RAM in two banks on either side. There are 18 DIMM slots, so you can fit up to 144GB — as with most of the competition (Sun customers are, seemingly, holding off on 8GB DIMMs until prices fall). Bear in mind too that, in common with all Xeon 5500 systems, both processor sockets need to be occupied in order to be able to use a full complement of RAM.
Sun's motherboard (also used on the 1U model), has two banks of nine DIMMs flanking the two Xeon 5500 processor sockets.
The Sun chassis hasn’t been altered that much from previous models, with a useful lift-up flap to access the six variable-speed hot-swap fans and, at the rear, a pair of redundant power supplies rated at 1050W.
Networking is handled by a pair of Broadcom controllers linked to a set of four Gigabit Ethernet ports, also on the back panel, while further expansion is possible via a set of six PCI Express slots located on risers inside the 2U Sun Fire chassis.
The inevitable embedded hypervisor is another option — it's currently on a CompactFlash card, although an internal USB port is also provided and support for faster flash DIMMs may be added on future models. VMware is the hypervisor of choice, but you can boot from others if need be, and the hardware is certified for use with all the leading virtualisation platforms, including Microsoft's Hyper-V.
Management options rival what the other vendors have to offer starting with an on-board management controller known as the Integrated Lights Out Manager (ILOM). The same processor as used on other Sun Fire systems, this features a dedicated Fast Ethernet port but can also be accessed in-band over the data network if preferred. Support for web-based graphical remote control and virtual media mapping come as standard, and you can also cycle the power remotely using the ILOM interface. On the downside, it lacks the power management and capping features found on HP's ProLiant servers, but tools to address this and add other options are also due to be released in a no-charge software upgrade (ILOM 3.0) due out shortly.
Sun also has its own management platform, called Sun xVM Ops Center, which can be used to manage both x86- and RISC-based servers. This delivers tools to discover and remotely provision bare-metal systems, as well as automate patch-management tasks, monitor server health and report on system compliance. However, to implement this you need a host system running either Solaris or Linux. Also, the software can only be used to manage Sun servers at present, and not those from other vendors.
Finally, on the subject of software, you can of course opt to run Solaris 10 on any of the new Sun Fire rack servers, or the OpenSolaris implementation. But that's not all: there's full support for Windows Server 2003/2008 and both the Red Hat and SUSE Linux distributions, plus full certification for VMware. Sun server hardware is available through a well-established resellers, while larger accounts can buy direct from Sun Microsystems.