Muscular SunFire X4200 feels the burn

Opteron-powered 2U server proves a strong data centre workhorse with a nice price.

Last year, Sun announced the Galaxy server line, the company's first foray into the dual-core Opteron world. In conjunction, Sun sent writers Oliver Rist and Brian Chee a preproduction unit of the Sun Fire X4100. Although it proved a formidable and cleverly designed machine, the X4100's preproduction status was readily apparent, and the duo ran into several significant issues.

A cousin of the X4100, the Sun Fire X4200, recently landed in my lab. Although it's not a bull's-eye, it's not far off the mark, seemingly free of many -- but not all -- of the problems afflicting its relative. The I/O subsystem is lacking in RAID5 support, for instance, and although hardly unique to this server, one of the 2.5-inch SAS drives died during a test.

Sun has packed quite a lot into the Sun Fire X4200. It physically resembles its SPARC-based Sun Fire brethren in a 2U form factor, sporting up-front USB ports, four hot-swap 2.5-inch 10,000 RPM SAS disks, an internal LSI RAID controller, four DDR400 ECC RAM slots per CPU, two PCI-X slots, a DVD drive, four Gigabit Ethernet ports, redundant power supplies, and Sun's ILOM (Integrated Lights Out Manager) interface.

Internally, the X4200 is nattily attired with a split-case design that places the mainboard and CPUs directly behind two banks of hot-swappable fans, keeping the power supplies off to the side, directly behind the disks, and separated from the main section by a full-length baffle. This design keeps the heat generated by the disks from being pushed across the mainboard.

As far as horsepower, the X4200 can handle two Opteron 200-series CPUs, leveraging AMD-8000 series chipset and HyperTransport technology to provide a fast path between the CPUs and RAM. Additionally, it can handle up to 16GB of DDR400 ECC RAM, 8GB per CPU. Sun helpfully colour-coded the RAM slots to assist in proper RAM installation, and also provides RAM fault indicator LEDs on each bank to help identify a bad DIMM.

On the storage side of things, the Fujitsu 2.5-inch 10,000 RPM SAS drives are controlled by an LSI SAS1064 controller that can handle as much as 3Gbps to each disk, and provides RAID functions. I've never been a fan of LSI RAID chipsets, but it appears to do the job, although drivers may be hard to come by if you're running a non-Sun supported Linux variant. Installing Windows will require a driver floppy -- but there's no floppy drive in the server.

Also, this RAID controller is limited to RAID1 or RAID0, so with four disks, you can either mirror two and two or create a stripe of all four, but you can't run RAID5 across all the disks, which is unfortunate.

Manage this

As many server manufacturers are discovering, it's not just performance that makes a server successful; it's also management. With the server market largely consolidating to a common pool of chipsets and CPU structures, performance across several similar servers from different vendors generally doesn't fluctuate greatly. The management aspects of those servers are what can set them apart.

In this arena, Sun has been working overtime. Service processors are becoming more common in the higher-end server class. The X4200 is no exception. Sun's ILOM provides SNMP, Web, and CLI-based server management via a dedicated 10/100 Ethernet interface. The Web GUI is obviously built on Java and can be quite pokey at times, taking several seconds to switch between tabs, for instance. It does provide the necessities such as remote power control, server health inspection, management configuration settings, and remote control capabilities, however.

The remote-control function is implemented quite nicely on the x4200. Requiring Java 5.0, it allows admins to gain remote KVM control of the server via an encrypted session to the service processor alone -- no KVM switches necessary. Unlike similar implementations from other vendors, 16-bit graphical remote control is possible without extra cost and it's very well handled. The interface provides solid video reproduction and great mouse control, which is problematic on many remote KVM devices. All service processor interface functions, including the remote control application, ran flawlessly via Firefox on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

All this is part of Sun N1, Sun's overall server management architecture. N1 collects all Sun servers, whether x64- or Sparc-based, into a central management console that automates software deployment, server management, and even offers a grid computing platform to share resources between disparate servers.

Solid State

I ran the x4200 through several real-world challenges, including Web-serving and file-serving tasks. It performed well, largely holding its own in all categories. In the static Web test, I ran ab benchmarks against the X4200 running Apache 2.0, serving Sun's own front page, including all images, and came away with an average of 2100 requests per second.

In the SSL tests, I ran sslswamp against Apache with a fairly well-tweaked SSL configuration and came away with an average of 405 operations per second, which is quite good, especially when compared to a pre-tweak average of 25 operations per second.

I ran my file-serving tests via Samba running with Solaris 10 on the X4200, and nbench smbtorture tests driven from another server. In this case, the throughput was lower than I expected, averaging around 18MBps, but that was due to the single 2.5-inch disk in the X4200. If a RAID5 array were available within the X4200, or the tests were run with disk served via SAN, I expect the numbers would have been significantly higher. Although some performance tuning was done on both the Apache and Samba servers before testing, it wasn't exhaustive.

As far as commodity Opteron-based servers go, the Sun Fire X4200 is near the front of the pack in design, performance, and management. I could easily picture myself building out a data centre with X4200s. A better disk I/O subsystem would complete the picture, but even with that caveat, the X4200 is an attractive, solid workhorse server and a good value for the money.

Bottom Line: Sun SunFire X4200

This is a serious server in a seriously well-designed package. The disk I/O subsystem is somewhat lacking, but the overall architecture is classic Sun engineering. The ILOM management facilities aren't the best in the market, but they work very well.

Overall, the X4200 is a solid server at an attractive price.

Cost: $US2595, base; as tested, $8655 with dual single-core CPUs, 8GB RAM, 4 73GB SAS 2.5-inch disk.

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