Software sets IBM's hardware apart

SAN FRANCISCO (10/03/2003) - In an ever more price-conscious market, IBM Corp. is one of few server heavyweights still swinging with authority. Though mail-order outfits like Dell Inc. are beginning to add engineering value to their server lines, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. (via Compaq) are among the last Intel-based server manufacturers doing more than just slapping components together. Additional software and intelligent, embedded hardware brains give these machines a competitive edge.

I recently took a gander at two offerings from IBM's best-selling eServer xSeries product line, the x335 and the x345, as well as the IBM Director 4.1 systems management platform.

I liked both machines from a hardware perspective. Each demonstrated IBM's careful attention to detail from a hardware perspective, which was especially evident from the systems' cooling designs with multiple fans and careful attention paid to airflow within the system as well as within a rack.

Setting these machines apart from other Intel-based servers are several useful systems management features. Most impressive, however, is the Director 4.1 software, arguably the best part of the IBM xSeries thanks to its ease of use and simplicity of integrating into an existing server farm.

Examining the xSeries

The eServer x335 is a 1U machine equipped with dual Pentium 2.4GHz CPUs, 1GB of ECC (error-correcting code) RAM, and dual 36.4GB Ultra320 SCSI hard disks in a striped configuration. Although its expansion options are more limited than that of the 2U x345, the x335 can nevertheless grow at least somewhat with its CPUs upgradeable to 2.8GHz Xeons, its RAM expandable to 4GB, and its disk capacity capable of 293GB if pushed to the limit.

The eServer x345 is a 2U machine centered around dual Intel Xeon 2.8GHz CPUs with 1GB of ECC-capable RAM (expandable to 8GB ECC) and backed by dual 36.4GB striped hard disks (expandable to six Ultra320 disks and configured for a maximum of 880GB of internal storage) handled by dual Ultra320 SCSI controllers. Both machines had dual 10/100/1000 NIC (network interface card) interfaces and 8MB video built into the motherboard.

Though our x345 came up right away, I ran into some initial trouble with the x335 due to IBM's inexplicable insistence to mount KVM (keyboard, video, and mouse) interfaces onto a proprietary cable, yet to not make that cable a standard part of the server. That's right; seeing or accessing your x335 will cost you just that little bit extra, and if you don't remember to order the cable when you order the server, you'll be in the same boat I was. Once IBM sheepishly sent us the required cable via overnight mail, setting up the x335 was a snap.

IBM says the cable is part of its C2T Interconnect cable chaining technology, which is designed to drastically reduce space requirements in large-rack cable runs. It also works with IBM's optional Remote Supervisor Adapter, which allows users with multiple xSeries machines to establish full remote control over all servers in a stack (as many as 24) from a single server or from a remote workstation.

The Light Path Diagnostics and Predictive Failure Analysis are excellent xSeries systems management features. With Light Path, administrators can disconnect an entire xServer from a rack, replace it, and then still get an accurate idea of what went wrong with the original system simply by opening the case. On the surface, Light Path looks like a simple LED panel located on the system board. But it's connected to a fairly sophisticated chip set, the job of which is to monitor and remember changing system states, even after the server loses AC power.

Finally, though my xServers came preconfigured with Windows 2000 Server, customers will need to undergo a rather lengthy setup process, including a full OS install. IBM provides ample documentation for this, however, both with the machine and on its Web site. Installation is completely covered, including OS, Remote Supervisor, the Broadcom NIC drivers, the ATI video drivers and the proprietary ServeRAID drivers.

Powerful Software

Setting the xSeries apart from its competition isn't what's inside the server; it's what's running on it. IBM's Director 4.1 was a truly pleasant surprise over other versions of bundled server management software.

Individual software licenses for this package come bundled free with every new xSeries machine, but I wasn't thrilled about the cost for additional licenses (after all, Insight Manager, for example, is still free). Nevertheless, I was highly impressed with Director's feature set and its ease of use.

This is a highly functional piece of software, yet the learning curve required by new users is incredibly small due to the system's clean interface and extensive use of wizards. You can get granular or even access the command line if you wish (especially for those managing Linux-based servers), but the wizards proved to be quick, easy, and effective.

At first blush, Director 4.1 seems to include all the basic system administration tools you'd expect, including event monitoring, task scheduling, SNMP support, and IBM product configuration. But once you delve a little more into this surprisingly broad platform, you'll find a host of other advanced functions.

Installation is relatively painless, though the system will need to do considerable discovery before it becomes useful. Fortunately, you'll find the same intuitive three-pane main console interface familiar from Director 3.1. From here you can use any Director feature simply by clicking on a task, then dragging it to a specified server. Complex tasks have easy-to-use sub-menus built into the main interface as well as a host of wizards to make the more complicated tasks a step-by-step process.

New in Version 4.1 is updated support for Microsoft Corp.'s Active Directory. This doesn't amount to full integration, but the two systems now can work hand-in-hand. For example, you can use AD for users and groups to assign repetitive or medium-priority tasks to specific help desk personnel. Director will then present the tools to perform those tasks only to appropriate personnel.

Beyond AD integration, you'll also find integration with the MMC (Microsoft Management Console), where systems with the Director Agent installed can present a rudimentary system-information data set as well as inventory and basic monitoring information. You can also view this information using a Web browser, though doing so requires enabling a local Web server during configuration, an option I chose to bypass.

I was also impressed with the new Server Plus Pack that shipped with both our xSeries machines. Server Plus Packs contain enhanced software modules specific to IBM servers and intended to give these even more management functionality when used in conjunction with Director 4.1.

The strategy works, too, since Plus Packs enable highly useful new features such as the Rack Manager, System Availability module, Advanced PCI Manager, and Software Rejuvenation. The latter is a utility capable of stopping or starting select software services on the xServer or even the servers themselves.

Our test version of Director 4.1 was using Microsoft's Jet 4.0 database, but Director can also use SQL Server, the Microsoft Data Engine 2.7, IBM's own DB2 database, Oracle 8 or 9, and PostgreSQL 7.2.

On their own, IBM's x335 and x345 are solid servers, combined with the impressive management capabilities of Director. Though the eServers were nice pieces of hardware, neither IBM nor its competition really sells server solutions anymore. The value these solutions can bring to the table sells them, and Director 4.1 gives IBM a big boost.

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