Sun has developed a 1U chassis design that can handle an impressive number of drives, yet also provide for a standard two-socket Intel-based mainboard and the company's signature four gigabit Ethernet interfaces, not to mention a relatively advanced Lights-Out Management coprocessor. The Intel-based Sun Fire X4150, AMD-based X4140, and SPARC-based T5120 and T5140 servers all look identical to the casual observer, but each offers a different take on the purpose of the ubiquitous 1U server.
I've had a Sun Fire X4150 in my lab for a few months now -- running everything from Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2008 to CentOS 5.1 and VMware ESX 3.5. Overall, I've found it a quiet, capable server that tends toward the lower end of the power consumption spectrum. All in all, it's a very real competitor to HP's ProLiant DL360 G5, IBM's x3550, and Dell's PowerEdge 1950 III. In fact, the fit and finish of the X4150 are generally better than the rest of the field's and far ahead in local storage.
Taking the high road
The Sun Fire X4150 in my lab is equipped with two Intel E5440 quad-core Xeon CPUs running at 2.83GHz per core and with 6MB of L2 cache per pair of cores. The X4150 can handle up to eight 2.5-inch SAS drives (mine has four 10K drives, 72GB each), 64GB of RAM (mine has 16GB), four gigabit Ethernet interfaces, and three PCIe slots. This puts the X4150 ahead of the mainstream server pack, as the main contenders in this space generally offer a maximum of 32GB of RAM, and between four and six local disks. With the four built-in gigabit NICs, the X4150 not only saves a slot that might be used for more Ethernet interfaces, but it offers three PCIe slots -- one more than HP, Dell, or IBM. In addition to those specs, the X4150 also sports two USB 2.0 ports up front, two in the back, and one internally -- very handy for software licensing or to boot from flash.
Some of these features might seem overkill for a 1U server, which is widely believed to be fine for light duty, but not for tasks requiring real horsepower. It would seem that Sun doesn't buy into that theory. The X4150 is priced similarly to other servers of comparable spec, yet offers storage and I/O capabilities generally found in 2U and larger systems -- this not only saves on rack space, but given the relatively low power consumption of the X4150, it can save on power as well.
On the other side of the X4150 is the Sun ILOM (Integrated Lights-Out Management) interface. This management coprocessor enables admins to remotely power-cycle the server, grab a local console, and perform other remote maintenance tasks. As in other Intel-based Sun systems I've seen recently, this management system doesn't quite measure up to the ILOM on the company's Opteron-based systems, due to little quirks in the remote KVM applet and relatively sluggish performance. But it's fully equipped with SNMP support, remote media mounting capability, LDAP authentication, and more. There's no doubt that it's functional, though it's not as fluid as it could be.
Running the lab gauntlet
Although I've run several OSes on the X4150, I ran my stable of real-world benchmarks on the X4150 using a fully updated build of CentOS 5.1. These tests include bzip2 compression tests, md5sum tests, MySQL benchmarks, and LAME MP3 encoding tests. While some of these tests are single-threaded, they offer a solid look at the performance of the server in situations that occur in the field, not in a lab. For comparisons, I used a year-old Dell PowerEdge 2950 with two dual-core Intel 5160 CPUs running at 3.0GHz with 4MB of L2 cache per core. Though the Dell 2950 had the edge in clock speed, the Sun Fire X4150 has four additional cores, as well as an additional 2MB of L2 cache per core. In this way, it's possible to draw performance comparisons between the X4150 and the hardware running in many datacenters today. The results were mixed, depending on workload, but the performance increases found in the X4150 were substantial in several tests, specifically the database benchmarks.