May 4, 2005

Review: Sun Fire V40z

Author: Craig Ziegler with Jem Matzan

The Sun Fire V40z is Sun Microsystems' "entry-level" server, but that classification doesn't fit the performance level and feature set included in this system -- it's far more powerful. I spent two weeks testing this machine in a production environment, trying different operating systems and measuring the performance of database calculations, and I was pretty impressed with its performance.

The system, which according to the vendor retails for about $17,500 in this configuration, came configured with 4 AMD Opteron 850 processors, 8GB of registered ECC DDR333 (there is an option to upgrade to DDR400, which could significantly increase performance of memory-intensive applications), two 73GB SCSI drives, and a large number of 80mm fans.

This is one of the more attractive rackmount systems I've played with. The front panel LCD display shows the machine's IP address and its status with the operating system. I didn't see it say much except that it was booting the OS; to get it to do anything more, the proprietary nps driver from Sun (available for Solaris, RedHat, SuSE, and Windows2000/2003) must be loaded. This allows the LCD to provide OS status, and to remotely shut down the server from the onboard service processor. Finally it also allows the service processor to capture and log events from the OS and to be aware of device driver versions.

After unpacking the machine, the first thing I did was pull the cover off and see what was inside. The top panel comes off with one thumb screw and a release level, making it easy to access the internal components. Anyone who has had to work on a rack of servers will appreciate the system's modularity and ease of disassembly.

Once the cover was off I found a large plastic duct for the 80mm fans. After I removed it, I could see two copper heatsinks. Two of the four CPUs were underneath, with four memory slots positioned equidistant from each CPU. The second pair of chips was not immediately visible with only the top cover and fan ducts removed. After some searching, I found them on an easily removable board under the drive cages. The mainboard covers almost the entire bottom of the chassis. I was quite impressed with what I found inside, and all of its major components were industry standard, so drivers shouldn't be much of a problem.

After connecting the dual power supplies to independent UPSes, I turned the system on and was greeted by perhaps the loudest system I'd heard in a long time. To my surprise it got much louder when I turned it on. That's no joke -- the 80mm fans operate even when the system is powered off, and when you turn it on, you get four large Opteron fans joining them. Once the service processor is finished with its initialization, it reads the CPU temperatures and adjusts the fans down to a more acceptable level. The system took ages to go through the power-on self test, but that's characteristic of all servers of this kind.

Operating systems

The Sun Fire V40z can come preinstalled with either the 64-bit Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 8. I opted for SUSE, but the software was a little too out-of-date to be useful to me, both in testing for this review and in my production environment. After some consideration, I switched to 64-bit Gentoo Linux -- specifically, the 2.6.11-gentoo-r5 kernel for i686 and SMP.

I didn't experience many issues with the install; thankfully, everything went well. I did have a problem with the onboard Trident video chip in the V40z. GNU/Linux doesn't support a wide range of features with this graphics processor. It would have been nice to be able to use the frame buffer, and X11 didn't support any decent video modes. For the cost of the machine, I would have expected Sun to use something a little more compatible, like the ATI Rage or SiS graphics chips.

Software installed

To test database performance, I installed Progress OpenEdge version 10.B -- this is what we use in production. One of Progress's requirements is a Java Virtual Machine (JVM), so I installed the sun-jre-bin package from Gentoo's Portage software distribution system, which consisted of Sun's binary Java package (version 1.4.2_07) compiled for 32-bit.

In addition to Java, I needed a few more packages to complete the software stack required for production:

  • Samba
  • MySQL
  • Apache 2
  • Java Runtime Environment 1.4.2_07
  • Progress OpenEdge 10.0B for Linux
  • WebSpeed

I spent about three hours installing software and preparing the server for production. Normally I expect to spend a lot more time compiling and configuring everything.

Processing speed on this system strikes me as above entry-level. I'm not sure why Sun chose to market this machine as an entry-level server except for the fact that it doesn't use the more expensive UltraSPARC CPUs. With 8GB of system RAM, I found the system to be more than adequate for anything I could think about using it for at my company. The only performance bottleneck I found was the disk drives -- they weren't fast enough to keep up with the rest of the system. As shipped, this system came with two 73GB SCSI Ultra-320 10,000RPM drives. Sun offers an optional 15,000 RPM drive, which probably would have improved disk I/O performance for my database.

Our current database server is a Dell PowerEdge 1600SC, which has two Intel Xeon 2.4GHz processors, 2GB of RAM, and six Ultra-160 10,000RPM drives in three mirrored containers, running Microsoft Windows Server 2003. With Progress version 9.1D running on this system, we get at best 145,000 logical reads per second, and can service no more than four local connections before the processors are completely used. This is an acceptable speed, but the system still requires several hours to run some reports. With the Sun Fire V40z server running Gentoo Linux (x86) on a 2.6.11-gentoo-r5 kernel, I saw considerably higher throughput with less load on the system. The system was able to achieve 300,000 logical reads per second while supporting 11 clients.

Next, I ran an accounting report on the V40z that deals heavily with reads from the database, with a number of calculations performed on each record in the database. I ran the report as a single user, as well as four simultaneous users. Progress is not threaded, and I wanted to see if I would see any slowdown using all four chips at the same time. The report takes between 1,000 and 1,200 seconds on the Dell system; it took only 330 to 350 seconds on the Sun machine. Running the reports four at a time took an average of about 4,300 seconds on the Dell, and 1,500 to 1,600 on the Sun. In both tests, the V40z took only about a third as much time as the Dell.

Conclusions

There's a lot to like about the Sun Fire V40z. It is fast and well-engineered, with good expansion capabilities and nearly all redundant components; the power supplies are hot-swappable, for instance, as are the disk drives. The chassis is well-designed and attractive, and the handles on the side of the case make it easy to move. An onboard remote management subsystem gives an administrator the power to work with the system even when it is powered off.

There were some things I didn't like about it, but none of them were deal-breakers. The system is louder than the rest of my rack combined, and produces a great deal of heat. It's also heavy, and required two people to place it on a workbench. It's a bit light on drive bays -- five, or six if you remove the CD-ROM -- which prevents the Sun Fire V40z from being used effectively as a high-volume file server. That is characteristic of servers of this size, so I don't see that as being a failure. The most disturbing drawback was the graphics chip. Granted, servers generally don't need good graphics, but frame buffer and X11 support are nice to have, especially if you're managing the server locally.

Before this review I had never worked with a system with this high a level of processor performance. I was impressed by the speed of the four Opteron 850 processors (Sun now offers the new Opteron 852 in this machine, which is dual-core ready), and by the quality of the components in the system. In any server, quality and reliability translate directly to uptime, which is important to any business.

Overall I enjoyed working with this system. It exceeded my expectations, even though they were high from the beginning. I think this system would do well as a high-volume Web, database, or email server, or almost anything else you might want to use it for.

Device Server
Manufacturer Sun Microsystems
OS Support Solaris 10 AMD64, Solaris 9 x86 HW 4/04, GNU/Linux, Microsoft Windows 2000 and Server 2003 (WHCL-certified)
Market Processing / managing databases, computing farms, modeling and simulation
Price (retail) $17,500 as configured; price varies depending on options
Previous version N/A
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