It's quiet, it's the rack of my dreams

Tom Yager likes Apple's XRackPro2

When I refer to my lab, I use the term loosely. It's a 10-by-10-foot working space whose smooth walls channel the sound from every device with a fan straight into my ears. I share that room with every server I use and test. Of these, an 8-core Xserve is the only box that stays on 24/7, and I wish I could say I've gotten used to the noise. I haven't. While the Xserve idles at a pleasant noise level, as soon as any computing load kicks in, the fans spin up. When they do, they find a frequency resonant with the part of my brain that tells me that if I value what's left of my hearing, it's time to leave the room. The necessity of working with rack servers that get louder with each generation has made noise the primary governor of my workflow. Of rack servers, Xserve is relatively quiet. Apple's design favors ergonomics, but this Xserve is configured with 8GB of RAM. For contrast, consider the four-socket, 16-core, 32GB 1U Barcelona rack server that AMD recently shipped to me. At idle, that machine is as loud as Xserve is at full tilt. My 16-core Xeon rack server is no better. I honestly can't live with them. I was ready to stick them in my garage, sucking wind from a portable air conditioner. The combined racket would be intolerable. There are three things that I set out to save: My ears and my power draw. To rescue my hearing, I shopped endlessly for noise reduction solutions, from sound-absorbing pads that stick to the wall to refrigerated racks that are, more or less, refrigerators. Sound-absorbing this and noise-scattering that, when they're pitched as solutions meant to work outside the rack enclosure, are glorified packing foam. The cost of cooled enterprise racks is so outrageously high that an employer would have to judge the expense greater than the value of one's hearing. But even those enclosures that seal for self-cooling are built for non-cooled and outdoor environments, neither of which is my problem. That long search brought me around to a company I've known about for a long time, but didn't associate with solutions suitable for enterprise use. After a long and edifying discussion, GizMac, a company that really needs to work on its name, agreed to send me an XRackPro2 sealed rack enclosure. GizMac was careful to set my expectations. XRackPro2 is not, the company warned, a noise-isolating cabinet. It reduces noise, I've learned, with varying effectiveness depending on the type and amount of fan noise generated inside the rack. But I'll tell you this: I packed an 8-core Xserve and two 16-core machines in a 6U XRackPro2. When I powered them all up, the noise was so overwhelming as to make a telephone call impossible from anywhere in the room. Until, that is, I shut XRackPro2's foam-sealed front and back doors. I sat there opening and closing the doors for quite a while, marveling at the difference in noise levels. I also discovered that the forced airflow through XRackPro2, with a filtered intake underneath the enclosure, where the cool air is, and a pair of huge AC fans mounted to the rear door, made the server fans spin considerably slower, further helping to control noise. GizMac chose the fans for the rear of XRackPro2's cabinet well. They are barely noticeable. XRackPro2 makes a jaw-dropping difference in rack servers' noise level, but by itself it isn't enough. The 6U XRackPro2 renders an 8-core Xserve silent. Even in the XRackPro2, the noise from three servers churning under high workloads falls from painful to safe, but in a 10-by-10 space, noise-reducing headphones are still occasional companions. There is, however, an unwelcome contributor to server noise — specifically, the noise that servers generate when they're shut down. A shut-down server's power supply fans keep spinning to supply power to subsystems that are always operating, like LAN interfaces and system management controllers. Why the fans have to spin so fast to supply so little power is a mystery to me. In any case, I consider the maximum acceptable power draw for an unused server to be zero watts, and the maximum noise level to be complete silence. This is achieved by yanking the AC plug from the wall, something that few servers can do for themselves. But there is a way to do it. Ages ago, DataProbe sent me an iBootBar rack power monitor/controller for evaluation. It sat idle for want of a rack to call home, but as soon as the XRackPro2 arrived, the iBootBar was the first device in the enclosure. The configuration of iBootBar that I use controls the power to eight outlets, singly or in user-defined groups. You give each outlet or group a name, and then you can control the outlets or list their power status using any of iBootBar's included Telnet, web, serial and modem management interfaces, all of which are constantly and simultaneously active. iBootBar can cycle power to force a server to do a full reset and perform user-defined power sequencing. It can also monitor network devices with auto-ping and cycle their power if they fail to respond, acting as an external watchdog. The more I work with iBootBar, the more applications I find for it. For one, iBootBar measures the power draw, in Amperes, for each group of four outlets. This allows for relatively precise remote power monitoring, which includes notification thresholds if the power falls below or exceeds a set level. iBootBar handles physical security by allowing me to cut power to the KVM switch, which is locked inside the XRackPro2 cabinet. I can fail-over the Xserve to one of the 16-core servers with neither machine's involvement, and if I'm under attack, as I was recently, I can kill the internet router and work safely via the LAN. I haven't hit perfection yet. There are a couple of things that iBootBar doesn't do that would raise its usefulness to a higher level. One would be to make iBootBar able to issue LAN wakeup packets ("magic" packets) to devices that are not set to turn on when AC power is restored. Another would be basic scripting. But these are small issues, considering how much noise and wasted power I was dealing with before the combination of XRackPro2 and iBootBar entered the picture. Now my ears can be where my servers are, and when we're apart, iBootBar gives me remote monitoring and control of the entire rack.

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