Sun Microsystems presents its new LX50 server as a solution for companies that want the scalability typical of 1U Intel servers with the manageability typical of servers from Sun. The company sweetens the pot with a wealth of bundled software and the ability to interact with the Sun Cobalt Control Station, which can manage as many as 250 of these servers, regardless of whether they're loaded with Sun Linux 5.0, as was the case with the system we tested, or with Sun Solaris, which is also available with this server.
The LX50 is an industry-standard 1U server that will support dual processors and up to three hard disks, two of which are accessible from the front panel and are hot-swappable. Beyond looking at the label on the front, you'd be hard pressed to tell whether this server came from Sun or was one of the several similar servers from IBM, Hewlett-Packard or Dell. In fact, when we compared this server against the extremely similar IBM X330 server, the most notable difference was that the Sun machine would accept up to six gigabytes of memory, while the IBM could handle only four. Pricing on the two servers is virtually identical.
What makes the LX50 different from the rest of the pack is that it will work with the Sun Cobalt Control Station, which we also tested, and it comes with a nice selection of bundled software, all of which you must enable yourself. Sun also brags about the inclusion of its Sun ONE (Open Network Environment) software platform, which includes such things as Sun's J2EE application server and development studio, but much of that was unavailable at press time. The bundled software that was included is primarily open-source, such as the Apache Web server.
The Sun-specific software apps that are included are the Sun ONE Active Server Pages (formerly the Chilisoft Active Server Pages), the Sun Streaming Server, and the Sun Grid Engine.
The Control Station, which costs an extra $A9,700, is designed to make managing numerous LX50 servers a reasonable task. The necessary management agent software is included with the LX50, and when it's enabled on each server, the entire collection of servers can be viewed from within a single Web-based application.
The Control Station's management application is straightforward and intuitive, if not particularly exciting. It allows you to monitor the operation of each server, including its current state, the state of the applications, memory use, disk space, and the like. If anything happens, it has the capability of notifying the system administrator by e-mail or pager. The Control Station resides on a Sun Cobalt Raq4 server that contains the specialised monitoring software necessary to interact with the management agent on each Sun server.
Getting the Control Station up and running is simplicity itself. As with other Cobalt servers, everything is handled through buttons on the front panel, which allow you to set items such as the IP address, network mask, and gateway. After you've done that, anything else can be handled through the Web interface.
Normally when we test servers such as the LX50, we install the machine in the test rack, power the unit on, and check for proper operation. Then we install or enable the test applications, and see how the unit shakes out. This was problematic with the LX50, not because it doesn't work, but because Sun simply does not include the information necessary to make much happen.
The initial startup runs well, and after the initial login, you're presented with a setup application from Red Hat. This application asks basic questions, such as the proper IP address, and then takes care of the settings for you. So far, so good.
But that's about all you can do. Although the Sun Linux manual describes how to enable the Sun ONE software stack, most of it isn't available yet. Nothing Sun includes with this server tells you how to turn on the management agent, the bundled open-source software, or much of anything else. In fact, the only information about the bundled software is a short note in the Linux manual telling you to use the graphical interface to do the configuration. This works, but doesn't help if you can't run the applications that you're configuring.
Typically in a situation like this you could go to the Web site, but the Sun Linux documentation contained there doesn't cover it.
The software we could find or divine, or that came up and ran by itself, ran fine. We were able to get a Sun engineer to tell us how to locate and start the management agent. We were able to run the graphical interface and configure a number of useful items, including the e-mail reporting software, and we were able to install and run some features such as the printer interface. However, testing with the WebAvalanche from Spirent Communications was not performed because it requires an operational Web server.
Just another Linux server
Even assuming we could get the bundled software running, the fact remains that the LX50 really is just another Linux server.
But there are reasons to consider the Sun LX50. It's fast, capable, and judging from our tests, reliable. Sun has widespread support, although the company's support policies leave something to be desired. And it's hard to complain about a version of Linux that seems to be extremely similar to Red Hat, even to the point of using some Red Hat utilities.
If you've got an existing Sun installation, and you use Solaris heavily in your other servers, then the LX50 is a natural. You'll be able to monitor everything with the Sun Cobalt Control Station, and you'll have a single point for support. On the other hand, if you're not already a Sun user, it's hard to see a compelling reason why the LX50 would make you become one.