High-powered 1U servers make the grade

Four slim but mighty systems offer redundancy, high capacity

Many administrators assume that 1U servers are intended only as nodes in a Web farm or high-performance computing cluster, where high availability is a function of the cluster rather than the individual node. However, a number of 1U servers are now available that include features most admins want in application or file servers, including redundant power supplies and fans, RAID controllers, and dual processors.

I looked at four such systems -- from Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, MPC, and Supermicro -- to examine the management, redundancy, performance, and expandability they offer, and I was pleasantly surprised. (Other vendors with similar systems, including Dell and IBM, were unable to participate.)

Testing: One, two, three ... four

I received the Gateway 9415, HP ProLiant DL360 G4p, MPC NetFrame 1720, and Supermicro SuperServer 6014P-TR for my test. All of the servers support 2.8GHz to 3.6GHz single or dual Xeon processors, have at least 12GB of RAM, and come with dual redundant power supplies.

Expandability is fairly limited because of the servers' 1U size -- one or two PCI-X slots, three or four drives max. All but the HP included an external SCSI port for adding direct attached storage.

These small servers offer a couple of surprises: First, the SATA-based MPC and Supermicro servers offered file server performance as good as or better than the Ultra320 SCSI systems; second, the most capable system, the Supermicro, was also the least expensive.

I set up the systems with Windows 2003 Standard Server and created a file share and then copied folders with either numerous small files or a few very large files, using several users on different client computers to copy files to and from the file servers. This test simulates conditions that real file servers face more closely than tests run locally on the file server using Intel's IOmeter, which doesn't necessarily reflect real-world file server performance.

The results for the file-server tests were interesting. In throughput tests using large files, the Supermicro system had the highest throughput, averaging just less than 65MBps over a gigabit link. The Gateway was second, at 57MBps, and the HP and MPC tied at almost exactly 42MBps.

However, it seems that the number of drives had a greater impact on the servers' performance than the drive interface did. In tests using many small files, I copied approximately 30,000 files using eight clients simultaneously and measured the time to complete copying all the files. Here the Gateway came in first, with a time of 37 minutes. The Supermicro was second, with a time of 41 minutes; the HP finished in 48 minutes; and the MPC in 52 minutes.

As for what caused this big difference in performance, the basic limitation in a small system is the performance of individual drives -- the more drives you spread I/O over, the better the performance will be. The disk itself is the bottleneck, not the controller or drive interface. As this test shows, that is true both in terms of overall throughput and I/Os per second. One might expect the Ultra320 systems to do better in I/Os per second, which they usually do in IOmeter tests; this might have been the case if the Ultra320 systems had had similar numbers of drives, but with fewer drives, they couldn't keep up.

Comparing and contrasting

Although using SATA drives in servers may raise some concerns about reliability, it shouldn't be much of an issue here: the two systems with SATA drives -- MPC and Supermicro -- use Western Digital's RAID Edition drives, which are engineered to run 24x7 and have MTBF (mean time before failure) ratings comparable with those of SCSI drives. With 250GB and 400GB RAID edition drives available and 500GB drives coming soon, the capacity offered by SATA is very attractive -- especially when the 400GB drives are cheaper than 72GB SCSI drives.

I also set up the servers as Web servers using Microsoft IIS and then used RadView's WebLoad to create loads, simulating an increasing number of users until response times dropped off. The number of clients necessary to saturate the servers corresponded fairly closely to processor speed, with the HP server doing almost as well with one processor as the Supermicro offering did with two, possibly indicating that IIS wasn't taking much advantage of multithreading.

The systems are very manageable; all offer iLO (Integrated Lights-Out) management modules, although iLO comes standard only with the HP server. All of the models except the HP offer an optional LCD front panel that shows management information, such as the server's primary IP address. And all except the Supermicro server include management software as well, although HP's is the most comprehensive.

When comparing the prices of the systems, be sure to look at available storage space -- as tested, the Supermicro offers 723GB; the MPC, 250GB; the Gateway, 128GB; the HP, 33GB. The HP's particularly low capacity should be a consideration -- 33GB is fine for running a Web server but not enough if you're looking for a database or file server. Of course, if you're connecting to a SAN, internal drive capacity is not much of an issue -- even 33GB is enough to run Windows or Linux servers. You can add 146GB or 300GB drives to the HP, but this will greatly increase the cost of the system.

You may also want to consider ease of buying: the Gateway, HP, and MPC servers are relatively easy to purchase direct from their respective retailers, but the Supermicro is sold as a white-box system through a number of retailers, so it may take some time to hunt down.

Gateway 9415

The Gateway 9415 is a full-featured 1U server that supports two Xeon 3.8 or EM36T processors, as much as 12GB RAM, and as many as three 300GB Ultra320 drives. It is certified to work with a wide array of operating systems, including Novell, Suse or Red Hat Linux, and NetWare, as well as Windows Server 2003.

The system comes with GSM (Gateway System Manager), a real-time monitoring tool that can send e-mail or SNMP alerts in the event of hardware problems. The test system used one slot for the RAID 5 controller and one for a two-port Gigabit Ethernet board, leaving no slots open.

The integrated controller on the Gateway 9415's motherboard supports only RAID 0 or 1 (mirroring or spanning). One slot can be either full-height PCI-X or 8x PCI-Express, depending on which riser card you use.

Both the Gateway and MPC servers appear to use an Intel Server Chassis motherboard: The systems are so similar that with the logos on the drive carriers covered, there's no way to tell them apart. The same chassis and motherboard support both SCSI (in the Gateway) and SATA (in the MPC) drives.

The Gateway's two power cord receptacles are on the back of the box, but the second power supply is actually removed from the front if there's a problem. The remote access controller for out-of-band management is an extra $549.

Overall, the 9415 is a good value. It is easy to order in various configurations through the Gateway Web site and offers excellent performance.

HP ProLiant DL360 G4p

The HP ProLiant DL360 G4p comes in several flavors, with the biggest difference being the type of drives supported: There are models that support two Ultra320 SCSI drives, two SATA drives, or four SAS (serial attached SCSI) drives.

The DL360 supports two 3.8GHz Xeon processors; two 15,000RPM 36GB or 72GB Ultra320 SCSI drives; two 80GB, 160GB, or 250GB SATA drives; or as many as four 2.5-inch SAS 36GB or 72GB drives.

HP features a wide variety of enterprise-level components, more than Gateway and Supermicro; MPC, however, provides a comparable contingent of components. HP's own component list includes FC (Fibre Channel) HBAs, clustering software, and its iLO Remote Management module, which enables remote power on/off and out-of-band management and is included with the DL360 G4p.

HP also offers great serviceability, a reputation for reliability, and extra features such as online spares for redundant RAM configuration. On the downside, its prices are not always the greatest -- a steep $379 for a 250GB SATA drive, for instance.

Enterprise administrators are very comfortable with HP for good reason, but if you're budget-limited, systems such as the Supermicro server will give you more for your money.

MPC NetFrame 1720

The MPC NetFrame 1720 is very similar to the Gateway 9415, using the same Intel chassis and motherboard, although it has three SATA drive bays rather than SCSI. Given this, it is difficult to understand why the price as tested is $627 more for a system with just two 250GB SATA drives in RAID 1. (The Gateway has three 73GB Ultra320 SCSI drives and a RAID controller using RAID 5.)

The 1720's performance was middle of the road, and because the integrated controller on the motherboard supports only RAID 0 and 1, adding a third drive would require a RAID controller, increasing the price substantially. Still, this would have boosted final capacity to 500GB, versus the Gateway's 146GB.

As with the Gateway offering, the MPC system provides one low-profile PCI-X 66-bit/100MHz slot and one PCI-X riser card (one 66-bit/100MHz slot) or PCI-Express riser card (one 8x PCI Express slot). The two power cord receptacles are on the back, but as with the Gateway system, the 1720's second power supply is actually removed from the front if there's a problem.

The MPC Web site offers easy ordering options to get a server fully populated with memory and drives, and also offers enterprise-level options such as FC HBAs and APC rack mount kits and UPS systems. However, the prices are relatively high, especially when the similar Gateway comes in with better performance at a lower price.

Supermicro SuperServer 6014P-TR

The SuperServer is the dark horse of this server test, and its top-notch showing was a pleasant surprise. Although less well-known than the other players, it offers superb performance, huge capacity (20 times that of the HP server as tested), and the lowest price by a wide margin.

The server has eight DIMM slots for a higher memory capacity, four drive bays for higher storage capacity, and an integrated RAID 5 SATA controller. Fully loaded with two 3.8GHz Xeons, 24GB of RAM, more than a terabyte formatted in RAID 5, and using 400GB drives, the SuperServer offers huge bang for the buck.

You do have to make a choice between configuring the SuperServer system with two power supplies or two PCI-X slots, but the only thing you're likely to want otherwise is an FC controller, which will fit in the one remaining slot. The optional server management module doesn't use a slot.

The other limitation comes on the support side. Supermicro doesn't sell directly to consumers; its Web site lists only the retailers that carry its products, and not all carry the whole product line.

Support will also vary depending on the retailer from which you buy the server, which may be an issue for some companies. However, the server is worth a little extra work to find it, with truly excellent performance and very low price.

Small workhorses

It's clear that 1U servers are not just for compute nodes or Web farms any longer. With a formatted capacity of as much as 1.6TB, dual 3.8GHz Xeons, 12GB RAM, and dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, one of these small servers will handle most computing chores short of a full-on database system. They all do this with good redundancy, too -- dual power supplies, hot-swap drives and fans, even spare memory modules for RAID-like system memory redundancy.

From a price/performance standpoint, the Supermicro system is a standout, with great disk performance, huge capacity, fast processors, and the lowest price in the group. Supermicro does not sell directly, which means finding service may be an issue and you'll need to find a retailer that carries the particular model you're looking for -- your price may vary but should still be on the low end of the spectrum.

The other three systems come from better-known brands and offer more extensive service organizations and some additional features such as online spare memory. The Gateway and MPC are both easy to order direct and offer the ability to get servers pre-configured with all the extras you want. Plus, the Gateway's performance is very good.

The HP is a workhorse from a long line of workhorses -- you will pay more for the same level of performance but can expect good service and reliability. The HP is also the only system to offer two full-length PCI-X slots, and it includes the iLO controller, which is an extra add-on cost with the other systems.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Serviceability (10.0%)
Availability (25.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Performance (20.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Gateway 9415 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0
HP ProLiant DL360 G4p 9.0 9.0 7.0 7.0 9.0 7.0 8.0
MPC NetFrame 1720 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 8.0 7.0 7.9
Supermicro SuperServer 6014P-TR 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.5
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