Sun has been taking it on the chin for the past few months — OK, longer than that — what with flagging financials, management turmoil, disappointing market share, and even a tug-of-war regarding Java technology.
Look beyond the bad news, because with its Sun Fire 1600 blade system, Sun has created a hardware solution that’s truly innovative and worth considering seriously, even by those who aren’t running Solaris shops.
The pricing is great, the hardware features extraordinary (if for no other reason than because the platform currently supports two separate microprocessor architectures, Sparc and x86), and it is easily scalable to support Advanced Micro Devices’ AMD64 architecture (rumor has it that blades using AMD’s Opteron processor are coming). The only significant weakness is management, which lags far behind the competition.
Sun recently provided IDG with a single-chassis blade server setup that included at least one each of the company’s individual server blades.
Also included was a gold-code version of the N1 Grid Provisioning Server 3.1 Blades Edition, the company’s approach to automated server deployment and management. Though it’s still rough around the edges, I was impressed with N1, which truly automates the concept of wiring up and provisioning the servers.
Sun’s foundation is the Sun Fire B1600 Blade Platform, a 3U rack-mount unit with 16 server slots in the front and two hot-swap power supplies.
Each chassis also has two removable Gigabit Ethernet switch modules, each of which contains eight GbE ports and a 10GbE backplane, plus a 10/100 Ethernet management port and a serial management port.
With a maximum loadout of 16 blades per chassis, that translates to a density of 224 servers per standard 42U rack. This is very good density and better than many blade systems. Though it’s below the ultra-tight design of RLX Technologies’ 300ex chassis, which stores 336 servers in a full rack, and HP’s ProLiant BL e-Class system, which offers 280 servers per rack, Sun’s server blades are more powerful.
In fact, Sun’s heterogeneous blade assortment is unprecedented, though frankly it’s unclear how important the ability to mix and match blades would be in a production datacentre. Sun currently ships three base-server models. The B100s use a 650MHz UltraSparc IIi processor running 64-bit Solaris.
The similar B100x is based on a 1.54GHz AMD Athlon XP 1800+ processor that can run 32-bit Solaris, SuSE Linux or Red Hat Linux. Then there’s the unusual B200x, a double-width server that contains two low-voltage 2GHz Intel Xeons with the same OS choices. Each of those blades comes with a single 30GB IDE hard drive. The 100-series blades have two Gigabit Ethernet ports that connect to the chassis backplane; the 200-series doublewide has four.
The blades themselves are nicely designed but do suffer some limitations. First, as you’d expect with blades designed for Linux and Unix, there’s no KVM capability whatsoever, so forget running Windows. There’s also no facility for adding new I/O, such as Fibre Channel or InfiniBand, to the blades so for external storage, you’re stuck with NAS.
Sun also included two other types of blades in the mix. The first was a Sun Fire B10n Content Load Balancing Blade; the second was the B10p SSL Proxy Blade. Both are built on the B100s blade’s hardware platform but have their software pre-installed and are treated as appliances. The benefit of placing these functions within the B1600 chassis is that these two specialised blades can communicate with their client server using dedicated VLANs over the 10GbE switch backplane — a definite boost to performance under heavy loads.
Manageability is this blade systems’ Achilles’ heel. Though Sun has built management capabilities into the hardware, it is command-line oriented, either through a serial port or over Telnet. Unless you opt to purchase the N1 Grid Provisioning Software, which has its own limitations, you’ll be configuring and monitoring these servers through SNMP traps and command lines. I found myself constantly referring to documentation and notes while reconfiguring the servers.
When one of the little LEDs on a server starts blinking — a situation that occurred during testing when I temporarily failed a hard drive — you’ll spend some effort tracking down and fixing the problem. Although Sun remains one of the best and most innovative hardware companies out there, the company needs to learn about management software.
Still, there’s much to admire. The flexibility to use three different processor architectures and double-width blades gives these servers strong agility. HP also offers the ability to double up blades in slots with its BL p-Class, but those are machines with much lower rack density. Anyone considering a blade platform for running Linux or Unix should definitely consider Sun’s offering — even if you’re not a Sun shop.
N1 blade management software shows potential
The foundation of Sun’s autonomic computing initiatives is N1, a set of applications that enables utility computing — that is, where applications can be dynamically configured via software. N1 is still very much a work in progress; nevertheless, one part that’s soon to ship is called N1 Provisioning Server Blades Edition.
This package offers a GUI-based interface for detecting server blade resources on a network, assigning them to virtual LANs, loading disk images containing operating systems and applications, and then adding the servers to load-balanced clusters. Note that this is provisioning software only; it doesn’t perform server management functions such as CPU load monitoring, fault detection, or remote administration.
Sun acquired the N1 Grid Provisioning Server software through its November 2002 purchase of Terraspring. The full software package is unwieldy due to its need to support a large number of server, load-balancer, firewall, network, and storage devices; the Blade Edition is a subset of the software constrained to work with the B1600 system and therefore is much simpler.
Much simpler — but not perfect. Sun’s engineers came to install the N1 Provisioning Server, which runs on a separate Sun Fire V120 server, at my test lab, using the B1600 blade system delivered previously. After about four hours, they couldn’t get it to work. Like I said, it’s a work in progress.
As it stands, the software works as advertised: a drag-and-drop GUI accessible via a browser, lets administrators detect unused servers (sorted by architecture), public (WAN) and private (LAN) router ports, firewalls, load balancers, and SSL accelerators. These devices can be connected together using single-line drawings and the servers associated with disk images. Press a button, wait between half an hour and two hours, and voila! The servers are loaded up, the load balancer is configured, you have an IP address, and you’re ready to start serving up Web pages or handling other transactions.
The system isn’t perfect, however. Right now it understands only the hardware in the N1 blade system. Also, it can only allocate individual devices to a single LAN — so you would have to dedicate an entire SSL accelerator or network load balancer to a single Web application or group of Web servers.
RRP: Starter pack costs $33,900.
The Sun Fire B1600 is distributed by Alstom IT and any Sun iForce partner. For further information visit: http://solutions.sun.com/iforce/pd/