12:30 PM
Jeff Ballard
Jeff Ballard

Sun Server Delivers Heavyweight Performance

Sun Fire X4150 packs lots of power into small package, and doesn't need much juice.

Today's data center managers have to balance a host of server requirements, including physical space, power, and cooling. And virtualized servers must be reliable because one machine may be running the same number of applications that used to be spread across multiple physical devices.

Enter Sun Microsystems' Sun Fire X4150. The 1U server we tested came packed with dual 2.8-GHz quad-core Intel Harpertown processors, 16 dual in-line memory module (DIMM) slots, three PCI-E slots, and four Intel Gigabit Ethernet network interface cards. Despite all this capacity, the Sun Fire X4150 sips, and doesn't guzzle, electricity. In addition, the management and service processor makes it an ideal virtualization platform.

On the downside, the Java-based remote console is clunky and requires Java Web Start, which is part of the standard Sun Java Runtime Environment.

Sun crams a lot of gear into this 1U device. To put it in perspective, a standard rack can hold as many as 40 of these servers. Thus, a rack full of the units as we tested would give you a whopping 320 processor cores, 320 hot-swappable hard drives, 640 DIMM slots, 120 PCI-E slots, and 160 Gigabit Ethernet connections.

CLAIM:  Sun Microsystems' Sun Fire X4150 aims to deliver an Intel-based 1U server that packs the punch of a larger machine. It includes eight hot-swappable hard drives and can support RAID 60 without external storage. The Sun Fire X4150 also has modest power requirements and supports Solaris, Windows Server, Linux, and VMware.

CONTEXT:  Known primarily for its Sparc processors, Sun has revamped its x64-based server line. Worries about Sun's support of operating systems other than Solaris are unfounded. The X4150 provides more bang for your server buck than comparable offerings from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.

CREDIBILITY:  The Sun Fire X4150 delivers the goods with 16 DIMM slots, three PCI-e slots, and dual quad-core Intel Harpertown processors. The X4150 supports up to 64 GB of memory and sports four Gigabit Ethernet slots, double what is offered by the Dell 1950, IBM x3550, and HP DL360. It offers heavyweight performance in a compact, energy-efficient package. The Service Processor also delivers excellent management features.
Typically, 1U servers are tight, awkward, and difficult to work with, but not the Sun Fire X4150. The chassis is easy to use and well designed. The front of the machine is full; it features up to eight 2.5-inch hard drives. The seven sets of fan modules also are easily hot swappable via an innovative top lid near the front, which is accessible when you slide the computer forward on its rails.

The X4150 we tested is rated at 319 watts of power usage when idle and 417 watts when busy, which is consistent with what we saw in the lab. Each 2.8-GHz processor in the machine uses 80 watts. Sun also offers a higher-performing Sun Fire X4150 with a faster 3.12-GHz processor, but that processor consumes 120 watts of power.

Cooling is a major concern in the design of 1U servers. An innovative hard drive enclosure allows air to flow around all parts of the drive, allowing for plenty of cooling for the rest of the machine.

As expected, the X4150's Solaris support is top notch. However, the X4150 also is an ideal machine to run VMware's Virtual Infrastructure 3, Novell's SLES 10, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, and Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008.

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Each of these operating systems installed with only minor annoyances. Windows 2003 does need additional RAID drivers to install properly; Sun provides a script that will rebuild a Windows Server 2003 installation CD to include the appropriate drivers. Windows Server 2008 had all the appropriate drivers built in.

We also used a beta version of Sun's Installation Assistant, which promises to smooth out minor installation snags. The Installation Assistant took charge to ensure that the right drivers were installed.

New to the Sun Fire X4150, and also being added by many vendors, are USB ports inside the computer case. These are intended to hold storage-boot devices for hypervisors--for example, ESXi, the embedded version of VMware ESX. Booting in this configuration allows for two new storage options: completely dedicated local storage for your virtual machines, or completely diskless servers that rely entirely on a SAN or another network-based storage. We installed VMware ESXi on a 1-GB USB storage device, then were able to remove the hard drives from our system and have ESXi use NFS-based storage.

The internal USB ports are fully functional, so you can enclose almost any small USB device within the computer. This is useful if you have an expensive USB license or security key that you want to protect.

The Lights Out Management service processor in the X4150 can manage the server in five ways: serial connection, SSH, SNMP, IPMI, or via HTTP. The serial connection and SSH use the same interface. The server supports both SNMP gets and SNMP traps, and offers different levels of access control to multiple users.

The HTTP management interface is nice and straightforward. Status indications are easy to find, and it's easy to alter the power state of the computer. We could even create HTTPS certificates as needed, a feature that's missing on many service processors.

However, to view the physical console, you will need to use a Java Web Start-based application. The Java-based remote interface provides a view of the physical console and allows for connecting floppy and CD drives to the local computer, which we like, but its latency and sluggish performance showed it's no substitute for being on the actual console. The Java Web Start interface did not greatly affect Linux installations, but it made Windows Server installs a bit more challenging. This is something to consider if you need to do many custom Windows installations and are planning on using the remote console.

Expandable Storage
Sun Microsystems' Sun Fire X4150
Bandwidth 16 slots
PCI-e Capacity 3 slots
Network Connectivity 4 Gigabit Ethernet ports
Size 1U
Power Dual quad-core Intel Harpertown processors
Maximum Memory 64 GB--16 DIMM slots
OS Support Solaris 10, VMware Virtual Infrastructure 3, Novell SLES 10, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, Microsoft Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008
Network Connectivity 4 Gigabit Ethernet ports
The Sun Fire X4150 has three options when it comes to storage: the embedded SATA controller, the LSI Logic-based StorageTek SAS controller, and the Adaptec-based StorageTek SAS RAID controller. We tested the StorageTek SAS RAID controller and were impressed by its features and OS integration. On the downside, the RAID controller will consume one of your PCI-e slots.

The RAID controller can be managed either via the BIOS during system boot or via a Java-based program that worked on all the operating systems we tested, except VMware. We could see and manipulate RAID controller settings as well as RAID arrays themselves, even while they were in use.

Building and altering RAID configurations historically has been a fragile process. Not so with the StorageTek SAS RAID card. Despite repeated attempts to derail the RAID rebuilding process, the RAID card carried on and never missed a beat.

One restriction we found was that the size of the partition can only increase, not decrease. Sun claims it will enable shrinking partition sizes in a software release later this year.

The Sun Fire X4150's Locator Indicator LEDs are a small yet handy feature that IT staff will appreciate. From the service processor, you can trigger bright white LEDs to blink on the front and back of the server to ensure that you're working on the correct machine.

The list price of the Sun Fire X4150 as tested was $9,711. The SAS drives cost $379 each (or just under a third of the cost of the server as tested). With all of its disks configured as RAID 60, the X4150 would make an excellent compact database server, video server, virtualization platform, or other data-critical machine.

Even without its disks, the X4150 is a powerhouse of performance in a small profile.

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