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FEATURE NT database server solutions

FEATURE NT database server solutions

Compared

ALR solution

Revolution 6x6 200/1

ADECS

Tel (02) 9427 8000

Fax (02) 9427 8050

www.alr.com

Data General solution

Aviion AV8600

Data General

Tel (02) 9937 3600

Fax (02) 9937 3700

www.dg.com

HP solution

HP NetServer LXr Pro8

Hewlett-Packard

Tel 13 1347

Fax (03) 9898 7831

www.hp.com/go/ netserver

Testing strategy

The question

Which high-end Windows NT database server is best-suited for mission-critical applications?

The issues

Ease of implementation

Manageability

Performance

Expandability

Fault tolerance

Design

Support

Cost of ownership

The options

ALR solution

Data General solution

HP solution

The answer

The Data General solution was the most well-rounded server we tested.

The latest generation of NT-based servers are enterprise-ready. We tested three and found it pays to have eight processors in your cornerLong relegated to the featherweight division of the database server market, the Wintel coterie has finally stepped into the heavyweight arena.

Its amateur-turned-pro status is due, in part, to last year's release of Windows NT 4.0 Enterprise, which added support for servers housing more than four processors. And the timing couldn't be better. The proliferation of Internet-based computing and server-based applications, such as data warehousing, has made the need for fast, scalable servers greater than ever.

In fact, 59 per cent of the readers we surveyed currently own multiprocessor servers or plan to purchase one during the next year.

Late last year, several hardware vendors released high-end NT database servers. We invited them -- Advanced Logic Research, Compaq, Data General, Digital, IBM, Unisys and Hewlett-Packard -- to participate in our Test Centre comparison. We asked the companies to provide us with their best server, as long as it didn't cost more than $US100,000 and it met a few basic criteria, such as being equipped with at least 1GB of RAM, Microsoft SQL 6.5, and 10/100Mbps network interface cards. Through hands-on testing, we wanted to determine which of these servers was the best for handling today's mission-critical applications.

Because we put so few restrictions on the vendors, we ended up with an amalgam of systems: ALR's Revolution 6x6 200/1, which came in with six processors and 4Gb of RAM; Data General's Aviion AV8600, which had eight processors and half as much RAM as the ALR; and Hewlett-Packard's NetServer LXr Pro8, which also had eight processors and 2GB of RAM.

We tried to include Unisys' Aquanta XR/6 in this roundup because it is the only 10-way server on the market.

Unfortunately, Unisys could not provide us with a system in time for our tests. Keep an eye out for it, though; we plan to review it as soon as we can get our hands on one.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . The Data General solution won our comparison because of solid scores in several categories. However, it was the most expensive solution we tested. The HP solution, which was configured much like Data General's, placed a close second. The ALR solution -- the only six-way server we tested -- held its own.

Which server you should buy, however, depends on whether expandability or cost is the higher priority issue. If you anticipate that you will soon outgrow a six-way system -- and given the rapid growth rate of today's enterprises, that's usually a good bet -- it makes sense to invest in a system that can expand. But if cost is a big issue, then a system such as ALR's, which maxes out at six processors, is good value.

The significance of our results, perhaps, is not which specific system proved better than another. In many cases, these high-end servers are built by the same manufacturer, and the differences between them are negligible. The real story is that Windows NT realises a significant performance gain on servers running more than four processors. (This batch of servers should put to rest the rumour that the NT architecture couldn't effectively use more than four processors.) Our benchmark tests ran about 33 per cent faster on a system equipped with six processors vs a system with four CPUs, and 73 per cent faster on an eight-processor system.

BACK IN THE RING. We approached this comparison from the perspective of a company that has decided to replace its existing four-processor server. To that end, we ran a system equipped with four processors and 1GB of RAM through our online transaction processing and decision support system benchmarks, and used it as a baseline.

We then ran each of the competing systems through the same tests using four, six and, if appropriate, eight processors respectively. In each scenario, our benchmarks stressed the servers carrying a workload meant to simulate about 1500 to 2000 clients.

Because these systems typically house mission-critical applications, we evaluated fault tolerance and expandability. In the fault tolerance category, we expected a system to have fail-safe components, including hot-swappable fans, power supplies and disk drives. Expandability was scored with the assumption that if your enterprise is growing, your server should be capable of growing with it. Other categories, specifically system design and manageability, kept administrators in mind. Generally, we looked for anything that made their jobs easier or more difficult, and scored accordingly. And finally, we scored technical support and determined projected basic ownership costs.

WAITING UNTIL IT'S 1999. To be sure, NT-based servers will not be a serious threat to Unix until the release of Intel's 64- bit chip, Merced, and Microsoft's accompanying version of Windows NT. But that's OK. This generation of servers proves they are on the right track.

Muhammad Ali, after all, didn't take on the venerable Sonny Liston until he'd been fighting professionally for years. And we all know what happened then.

ALR solution

ALR's Revolution 6x6 200/1 needs some fine-tuning before it is enterprise-ready. The system lacks the kind of fault-tolerant hardware you would expect when running a mission-critical application. In addition, the system we tested was markedly less expandable than its competitors. The system maxes out at six processors and 4GB of RAM.

That notwithstanding, the system is a bargain, and hardware and software maintenance is free. Useful management and monitoring utilities are in abundance.

A minor gripe

The management software, InfoManager, provides pre-designed graphical icons that display the system's environment and monitor ts conditions. Our only complaint is not being able to add a few monitoring objects to the existing display. Nonetheless, the system information devices are pretty detailed. The ALR solution was the only system with a touch-sensitive LCD screen.

This feature is particularly useful when you just want to take a quick peek at the server environment. An additional benefit to this solution is its overall size. Our particular module fitted nicely beneath a workbench; it was easily concealed and out of the way.

Pros

(1) Least expensive server

(2) Free software and hardware support

(3) Provided a three-channel disk array configuration option(4) Touch-screen LCD to monitor hardwareCons(1) Lacks fault-tolerant fans(2) Limited expandability options(3) Requires more administrationPricing: Hardware: the server is $117,995 RRPSoftware: (Microsoft NT Enterprise edition) is $5275 RRP Data General solutionData General's Aviion AV8600 is well-suited for the corporate enterprise. It comes with on-site installation. Its fault-tolerance and management utilities are impressive. Additionally it is very expandable. It was the most expensive solution we tested, but it also had the most features.

Among the fault-tolerance features we found invaluable is NTAlert. NTAlert monitors the server's environment and calls Data General's Service Centre when it detects a problem. This feature is particularly useful if something goes wrong during the weekend or off-hours.

This solution's monitoring tools are also top notch. For example, we could easily create customised charts by selecting objects and dragging them onto a list window.

The Data General solution is very expandable -- it can accommodate as much as 8GB of RAM and as much as 99GB of storage. In addition, it supports technology growth: it currently supports NT Cluster-in-a-box, and, when it becomes available, it will support Intel's next generation chip, Deschutes.

Data General Australia's product marketing manager, Michael Bookey, said the AV8600 is DG's flagship high-end enterprise Windows NT offering.

"The AV8600 offers the three most important features in high-end com- puting power: upgradeability, reliability and availablility," Bookey said.

In response to the Infoworld test centre comparison, Bookey says although it found the AV8600 to be more expensive than other offerings from the competition, the high-quality value additions DG's solution possesses (such as monitoring tools, fault-tolerance and expandability are also bonuses).

"At the end of the day, the question really is what price is any organisation willing to pay to preserve its crown jewels -- its data?" he said.

According to Bookey, organisations are increasingly looking for high-end storage solutions, and because DG offers its state-of-the-art fibre channel CLARiion storage to complement the AviiON servers, along with plug and Play Cluster-in-a-Box for NT, customers can get the total solution from one vendor.

Data General's managing director, Dan O'Hara, said the AV8600 is being marketed by the company's direct sales force, and through resellers such as CV Services International and Divergent Technologies.

"Data General has a policy of offering all our customers direct support -- irrespective of its size, and this has always been a very strong selling point for us against any competition," O'Hara said.

Pros

(1) On-site installation

(2) Superb fault-tolerance utilities

(3) Top-notch monitoring tools

(4) Expandable

(5) Supports a wide variety of future technology upgradesCons(1) Pricey initial purchase(2) Most expensive to supportPricing: Entry-Level AV8600 Rackmounted Chassis has an ESP of $175,891High-end Enterprise Server Configuration: AviiON, CLARiiON and Application Failover has an ESP of $197,996.

HP solution

The HP NetServer LXr Pro8 is a well-built, powerful machine. Among its most impressive offerings are its fault-tolerance features, sleek rack design and overall performance.

Bill Clinton would be proud of this machine's 21st century design. The server is modelled after a docking station that makes it easy to swap out parts large or small: the entire satellite module can be removed and replaced with future-generation CPUs. Also, the temperature of the CPUs is controlled by a cooling liquid device, instead of fans with movable parts, to reduce potential points of failure.

There are benefits and limitations to the system's TopTools utility. Remote administration is a snap. And it can be customised to poll at specified intervals, sending an alert to the administrator if there are problems. Unfortunately, TopTools only runs on Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0. Clearly, this is limiting if it's not your browser of choice.

Although the HP Netserver LXr Pro8 is not yet available in Australia, HP says the next best server is the NetServer LXr which comes with a 200MHz Pentium processor. The LXr can be expanded to accomodate up to four-way multiprocessing 10 I/0 slots, six PCI bus master slots and four EISA slots.

Pros

(1) On-site installation

(2) Modular rack mount design

(3) Hot-swappable components

(4) Expandable

(5) Strong performance results

Cons

(1) Management software lacks maturity and some functionalityPricing: The HP NetServer LXr Pro8 is $US103,107. Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 Enterprise Edition is $US3199NetServer LXR. The uni-processor starts from $40,000; the two-way processor starts from $50,000; and the four-way processor starts from $100,000Windows NT is here to stay . . .

Recently, while at a Unix symposium, IDG's test platform man- ager, Stuart McClure, overheard a renowned Unix guru say to a room full of devotees: "If we were smart we all would have learned NT three years ago."

. . . but it has a long way to go

Much has been made of the Wintel platform's capability to support more than four processors.

But Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems have been able to support more than eight processors in a single machine for years. Plus, there are systems made by SGI that handle as many as 128 processors.

The big picture:

Windows or Unix? That is the question

by Sean Dugan

Five years ago, probably only Bill Gates envisioned Windows NT going head to head with Unix. How quickly things change in computerland. Multiprocessor servers have hit the corporate mainstream in a big way, thanks to Intel's low-cost, powerful processors, and they're here to stay. The release of Intel's first 64-bit chip, Merced, scheduled for 1999, will only bolster Wintel's position.

Does this mean that Windows NT is the future? Not necessarily. Although Windows NT has realised phenomenal growth during the past several years, Unix remains a dominant force in the server market.

In support of our comparison, we interviewed 100 readers about their multiprocessor application servers, and found that Windows NT has a commanding presence in the low-end multiprocessor server market.

Almost three-quarters of respondents in our survey indicated that their typical multiprocessor server cost less than $US50,000. Although these aren't necessarily small potatoes, mission-critical enterprise servers can cost $US500,000 or more, a space currently owned by Unix.

Another critical junction in this marketplace is clustering -- the grouping together of systems for better performance and fault tolerance. Only 12 per cent indicated they currently employed clustered servers, but 36 per cent planned to implement server clusters in the next 12 months. Clustering is an area in which Windows NT has yet to prove itself, but Unix has a strong presence. As more enterprises demand robust, powerful server farms, it remains to be seen who will control this lucrative market.

According to IDC, shipments of NT-based workstations surpassed shipments of Unix-based workstations for the first time in 1997. But that isn't the whole story. Revenue based on Unix exceeds NT by a large factor, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Windows NT is moving into the enterprise with a take-no-prisoners attitude. It will be interesting to see how Unix vendors respond.

Tuning SQL server: tricks of the trade

by Brooks Talley

Most of the readers we surveyed currently run Microsoft SQL Server on their symmetric multiprocessing database server. In preparation for our Test Centre comparison, we found that properly tuning SQL Server for a particular application is no easy task. There are, however, a few straightforward principles that apply to most applications, which will help you get the most out of your system.

The keys to creating a happy, healthy SQL Server and accompanying applications are hardware, server tuning, database design, and application design. Each works in conjunction with the others. Of the four, however, perhaps the easiest way to realise an increase in performance is proper tuning. Here we look at the tuning tips that most often go overlooked.

Before you begin, do not try anything on a production server unless you have a good understanding of what you're doing. Also, be familiar with Windows NT's built-in Performance Monitor; it will help you monitor the effect of any changes you make.

Tuning SQL Server for hardware involves several steps. First, you need to decide if the server is going to be dedicated to SQL Server, or if it's going to need to support other applications, including file and print; handle domain log-ons; run a Web server; or anything else that might require CPU time.

If the machine is going to be a dedicated SQL Server machine, set the "priority boost" option to 1. This tells SQL Server to run at a higher application priority, and it will cause other applications on the same machine to run amazingly slowly. Do not do this if the machine is a Primary or Backup Domain controller or if it supports anything other than SQL Server.

SQL Server's performance depends heavily on its tuning parameters, four of which we discuss briefly here. The easiest way to make changes to these parameters is through SQL Enterprise Manager, using the Server/Configure option. The very first thing you will want to do is set "Show advanced configuration options" to 1, and apply the change. This populates the screen with more configuration options.

On SMP machines dedicated to SQL Server, you may also want to set the "SMP concurrency" parameter to -1, which tells SQL Server to use all system processors. The default value, 0, tells SQL Server to use all but one of the CPUs, which is handy only for nondedicated SQL Server machines, or machines using RAID software.

The "memory" parameter is one of the most important parameters, and a complete discussion of it is beyond the scope of this article. There are, however, three key things to know about it.

One, adding memory to the machine does not mean that SQL Server will automatically take advantage of it; you must manually increase the "memory" parameter. Two, it is entirely possible to set the parameter too high, causing SQL Server to think everything's wonderful -- 99 per cent cache hits and all -- when in fact NT is starving with the 8MB you left it and overall system performance is terrible. Three, this parameter is in 2MB blocks (not very intuitive), and setting it to "64" on a 128MB machine is not giving NT 64MB -- it is leaving it with nothing.

An I/O parameter, often best set through trial and error, is the "Max Async I/O", which tells SQL Server how many asynchronous I/O requests (typically disk requests) may be outstanding at one time. The default value, eight, is very conservative, aimed at low-end IDE configurations. As you move to RAID I/O subsystems consisting of multichannel, Ultra-SCSI hardware, it isn't unusual to get better performance with values as high as 64.

There are plenty of fine books on SQL Server tuning. These four parameters are a good start, but they come nowhere near to what you will actually need to know.


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