5U servers are big, but flexible

SAN FRANCISCO (09/26/2003) - Sure, today's 1U servers are inexpensive, and if you're hurting for space, they provide adequate processing power like nothing else of that size. But in many companies, it's not rack space that counts so much as increasing processing power and storage capacity. For that, nothing beats a server with plenty of internal storage, space for the necessary add-on cards and an extra processor if you need one. A basic 5U machine can meet these general-purpose server needs.

The benefits of the larger machine are clear. You say you need a good RAID-5 disk array? You can have one in the box. You need multiple network interface cards? Fibre Channel for backup? Dual processors? Tons of memory? You can fit it all in these machines and still keep the cost below the national debt.

For this review, we looked at a pair of dual-Xeon general purpose computers. Both machines, the NetFrame 600 from MPC Computers LLC and the ProLiant ML370 from Hewlett-Packard Co., came with a gigabyte of memory, RAID-5 disk arrays, 533MHz front-side busses, and Gigabit Ethernet cards. But there were differences, too, such as HP's featured redundancy, absent in the MPC.

HP ProLiant ML370 G3

HP's ProLiant is clearly designed for long-term ease of use and ease of management. As has been the case with its predecessors, the physical design is well thought out. Accessing the inner workings requires no tools, and there are no cables. You can open the server while it's still in its rack, and you can swap redundant components while the server remains operational. The four 36GB wide ultra 160 SCSI drives in the test unit were all hot-swappable, and there was room for more storage.

The review unit included a pair of 3.06GHz Xeon processors, each with a gigabyte of level-3 cache. Also inside were the optional redundant hot-swap fans and the optional redundant 500-watt power supply. In other words, this server was loaded for bear.

HP has a couple of nice features that make life easier for the folks down in the server room. The standard rack rails are tool-free, and although I didn't use them this time (I installed the server on top of a handy Rubbermaid cart), previous experience with these rails has shown them to be fast and simple to use. Even better, the ML370 includes a set of two fold-out handles on each side of the chassis, so you actually have a way to get it onto those rails quickly and without danger of dropping the unit.

Other nice touches include a top that slides off with a simple press of a latch mounted on top of the case, just behind the bezel. You can do everything except connect cables from the front of the machine. Likewise, swapping components such as the fans is a simple process of lifting one out and dropping the new one in. There are no cables, and every fan is the same, so you only need to stock one kind.

HP's ILO (integrated lights-out) Web-based utility, which gives you control over every aspect of management, is straightforward, intuitive, and easy to use. The software uses a separate 10/100 NIC for access, so you can manage the server without interfering with operations. You can also manage HP's servers with OpenView or other management frameworks.

HP delivered the ML370 with Windows 2003 server already installed. However, it took me a while to figure that out. When the machine arrived, it initially wouldn't boot. I tried reseating the array controller, but to no avail. Eventually, after several restarts in which the computer could find no disk drives, I noticed that the array card mounting bracket on one end of the card was slightly askew. Reseating the card took a surprising amount of force, but when done, the server booted and ran normally.

Once the server was up, it ran as you'd expect a Windows 2003 server to run. It talked to the network, served Web pages to the Spirent Communications WebAvalanche 2200, and in general performed as expected. Interestingly, this is a much quieter machine than the HP DL360 currently installed in the lab. And although you still hear the varying tones of the fan as it changes speed in response to cooling requirements, it's not the banshee scream of its smaller sibling.

Because it's quiet, well designed, and highly flexible, the ML370 will fit well into department-level environments, larger remote offices, and in areas where you need a server on the edge of the network. You won't get the processor density that you get with a 1U server, but you get a lot more capacity and flexibility. More important, HP has made operation and management of the server relatively easy. ILO means the enterprise IT staff can keep tabs on the machine, and careful design means the on-site staff can service it easily. It is more expensive than some other similar machines, but you get what you pay for.

MPC NetFrame 600

MPC delivered a leaner and less-expensive version of a 5U server that is for the most part similar to the ProLiant. Unlike the HP server, the NetFrame 600 did not arrive with as much redundancy built in, but only because some optional items, such as the redundant power supply, weren't included. On the other hand, MPC is shipping serial ATA storage, and the test unit had three SATA drives installed in a RAID-5 configuration.

The interior of the NetFrame 600 isn't totally cable free, but the inside of the case is easily accessible, and the few cables there are easily managed. The fans are hot-swappable as are the power supplies. The SATA drives, unfortunately, are not. Although MPC can deliver the NetFrame 600 with a pair of 3.06GHz processors, the test unit arrived with 2.8GHz Xeons with 512 MB of level-two cache. If you'd rather have SCSI drives, you can get wide ultra 320 drives instead.

MPC's server doesn't include nifty handles on the side like HP's, but it's lighter than HP's, so handles are less necessary. You can remove the top cover from the NetFrame while it's in the rack, but you must do it from behind the unit. The process requires you to loosen two thumb screws so you can slide the top to the rear. On the other hand, the NetFrame includes a front-mounted USB port, something that's growing increasingly useful for loading files onto a server.

Unfortunately, MPC doesn't provide an integrated management package. If you need to manage the NetFrame 600, you'll need to log on to Windows. However, MPC does provide a second network interface, this one a 10/100 NIC, so you can still get to the machine without interfering with the primary gigabit interface. (Incidentally, you can bridge these two Ethernet interfaces for greater bandwidth, but it's not clear that it's worth the trouble given the relatively minor improvement you're likely to see. You'd be better off with an additional gigabit NIC.)

The NetFrame 600 is available in both pedestal and rack configurations. I tested the rack-mount configuration, but the pedestal mounting may be more convenient in some offices. Also nice were the unit's quiet fans; you won't mind having this server in the same room as your staff.

MPC shipped the NetFrame 600 with Windows 2000 Server. By the time you read this, Windows 2003 should be available.

I ran across nothing unexpected using this server. It exhibited excellent performance, it was easy to manage and use (as long as you don't mind using Windows remotely) and the SATA drives provided lots of capacity. While you don't get the level of redundancy and management that you get with the HP, this server costs less, so again, you're getting everything you're paying for. And if you don't need the extra management features because your department isn't huge or your enterprise isn't spread out around the country, then this server deserves serious consideration.

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