Sun's newest server: Dynamite comes in small packages

Sun Blade 6000 offers plenty of bang for the buck

Late last year, I conducted an exhaustive test of Dell, HP, and Sun blade systems at InfoWorld's Hawaii labs. Everyone brought the big boxes, and we ran them through their paces using the SPEChpc benchmark suite. It was a great test that produced some unexpected results -- namely, the Dell blades took a surprising victory over both Sun and HP.

In those tests, Sun brought its massive Sun Blade 8000 system, which is a 12U, 10-slot chassis that runs four-socket blades. The other participants brought their biggest units, but those used two-socket blades. Sun's performance in that test wasn't stellar, due largely to a software issue and not hardware.

Now, however, Sun has introduced a scaled-down version of the Sun Blade 8000, dubbed the Sun Blade 6000. It's a 10-slot, 10RU chassis with two sets of redundant power supplies, and it offers the same expansion options found in the 8000 series. There are two network module slots in the rear of the chassis, slots that can hold two 10-port gigabit modules dubbed Network Express Modules. These are not network interfaces themselves, just media pass-through adapters, so the cost is very low: about $500 (list price).

In addition to these slots, each blade has two Express Module slots at the top of the chassis that can handle a variety of standard PCI-SIG cards, from dual-gigabit Ethernet to Fibre Channel and so forth. Thus, it's possible to dress up any blade with as many as six Gigabit Ethernet ports, four GigE ports and Fibre Channel connectivity, or any mix. It's a very nice feature and adds significantly to the expansion possibilities of the 6000 series.

Blade power
As far as blades go, the Sun Blade 6000 offers the greatest range of any blade chassis, essentially because you can mix and match dual-socket Intel, AMD, and single-socket Sparc-based blades in the same chassis.

The X6250 Intel blades are available in dual- or quad-core versions of the Intel 5000-series CPUs, with up to 64GB of 667MHz PC2-5300 FB-DIMM (fully buffered DIMM) RAM. Inside, there are two x8 PCI Express buses and one x8 PCIe bus to each PCI interface module; two x4 PCI Express buses and one x8 PCIe bus to each Network Express Module; four 3Gb SAS interfaces standard; and eight available using the RAID expansion module. The RAID expansion modules supports SAS drives and offers RAID 0,1,5,10 support.

The X6220 Opteron-based blades share many of the same features as the Intel blades, but they're slightly older and don't offer the RAID expansion option. They can handle dual-core Opteron 2200-series CPUs and have one x8 PCI Express bus per PCI Express Module and Network Express Module. The X6220 blades offer both SAS and SATA SFF (small form factor) drive support, however.

The T6300 blades are Sparc-based and offer a single-socket multicore UltraSparc T1 CPU. It's limited to 32GB of RAM per blade, though it uses all four memory controllers in the processor. Those processors are available in a few configurations: six- or eight-core running at 1.0GHz, an eight-core 1.2GHz version, and finally an eight-core 1.4GHz UltraSparc T1 CPU. It shares the SAS/SATA SFF disk support of the X6220 but lacks RAID.

The Intel and AMD blades also offer an internal CompactFlash slot, which is a nice touch, considering that there are no internal USB headers within the blade itself. This will come in handy for a variety of applications, predominately for the upcoming Flash-based VMware V3i product. Use of the CompactFlash interface in this fashion will preclude the need for hard drives in the blades, which will reduce heat generation and power consumption while essentially removing the problem of disk failure.

In the lab, I had a Sun Blade 6000 chassis with six blades (two each of the X6250, X6220, and T6300 models), two Network Express Modules, and four dual-gigabit Express Modules. This equates to four blades with four gigabit NICs each, and two blades with two gigabit NICs. I worked with a variety of operating systems, from Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4.5, CentOS 5, VMware ESX Server 3.0.1 and 3.0.2, to Solaris 10, Windows Server 2003 Standard and R2. I used 32- and 64-bit versions of each. I didn't run into any problems with driver incompatibilities that couldn't be rectified with a few updated drivers, and most of the newer releases found all the hardware without issue, including VMware ESX 3.0.1 on the Intel and AMD blades.

Embedded management
One of the features I found very useful on the Sun Blade 8000 chassis was the Chassis Management Module's Web interface. In the 8000 series, you can pull up this module in a Web browser and use it as a clearinghouse of sorts, jumping to any one blade, or several, and getting a graphical overview of the entire chassis. This Web interface isn't available on the 6000 series, however, and is strictly command-line. It's unfortunate to lose that capability.

Each blade has an ILO management card embedded in it, however, that drives like any of the Sun Galaxy server management cards, offering a Web interface with out-of-band power controls and console redirection. The console redirection available in the AMD-based blades, dubbed JavaRConsole, is simply stellar, offering a fully graphical console based on a Java applet that works flawlessly. It offers virtual CD and floppy support and accurate mouse tracking.

I've run it on Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows clients. Unfortunately, the Intel-based blades diverged from JavaRConsole to the Java Remote KVM applet. I had problems getting it to work under anything but Windows and a specific version of Java for Linux, with the applet either failing to load or showing nothing but a blank screen.

With the systems that I did get it to run on, the mouse tracking seemed less stable, multiple sessions in a single applet apparently weren't supported, and the overall experience was not as good as that of the older version found on the Opteron blades. It's curious to me why Sun would "fix" something that wasn't broken, but it seems that it has. Perhaps a firmware update in the future will rectify some of these problems.

Solid performance
I I did wind up with a bad X6220 Opteron blade in the initial shipment, but the replacement Sun shipped worked fine. Some of the benchmarks I ran were real-world FPGA simulations, and my rough calculations showed that the Opteron 2220-based blade outclassed an identically configured Opteron 285 system by about 6 percent, which isn’t bad, but also isn’t a huge margin. However, the performance gains shown by the quad-core Intel blades using those tools was significant, at roughly 20 percent across identical test runs. I did note that when running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 U5 on the Opteron blades, the kacpid process had a tendency to become a runaway, consistently consuming 40-50 percent of one core and not responding to a kill command. I have yet to find a permanent fix for that problem.

Overall, however, testing across the three blade architectures showed solid performance at every level, and the quad-core Intel blades are obviously perfect for virtualization.

It would be nice to see a refresh of these blades with AMD’s Barcelona, and Intel’s Harpertown-based Stoakley platform, but as far as what’s available today, the price/performance mix delivered by the Sun Blade 6000 is outstanding. My quibbles with the lack of a Web-based CMM and the relatively annoying Intel ILO are minor, and hopefully will be addressed in the near future, but the overall package is very impressive.

This story contains updated information in the “Solid performance” section that did not appear in the earlier version previously posted.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Serviceability (10.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Availability (25.0%)
Performance (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Sun Blade 6000 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 8.5