Logan Harbaugh test drives two blade server systems, the 300ex from RLX and the TUD-2016 from Tatung. The units are comparable in many ways, including price, basic architecture, and operating systems supported. The differentiating factors? The management software and ease of use.
As the demand for reliable network services continues to grow, groups of small servers are proliferating, especially in the areas of clustering and Web farms. This need is driving the demand for blade servers -- essentially servers on a single card that can be crammed eight, 16, or even 24 to the chassis.
With the capability of fitting as many as 336 servers into a single seven-foot rack, issues such as cooling, management and deployment of operating system images can become more critical than the performance of the individual blades, although dual- and four-CPU blades are becoming available.
We reviewed two systems, the RLX 300ex chassis and the Tatung TUD-2016 Blade Server System. The RLX system supports up to 24 blades (23 plus the control tower management blade) in a 3U (5.25") chassis; the Tatung server supports 16 blades in a 2U (3.5") chassis, yielding 336 servers per seven-foot rack in both cases. While the basic architecture of both systems is similar (e.g., removable blades holding the CPU, memory and hard drive), there are some basic differences.
The RLX unit provides three separate Ethernet connections for each blade via special connectors that fan out to individual Ethernet plugs, and it includes a dedicated management module. Optional switch modules are available to aggregate all 24 connections for the internal and external networks into two gigabit Ethernet connections.
The Tatung unit incorporates redundant Ethernet switching modules and management modules that aggregate all the blades into one 10/100 or Gigabit connection for each of three networks -- internal, external, and management.
Both systems offer an assortment of operating systems, Linux variants, and Windows 2000 Server. The management platforms make it simple to create an image from one blade and deploy that image to the rest of the blades in the chassis.
The systems are also comparable in overall cost -- list price for one chassis with 16 blades is $29,082 for the RLX unit, and $29,730 for the Tatung unit, assuming 800i blades are used.
The RLX blade server requires switches or hubs for internal and external networks, whereas the Tatung blade server requires an external management server running the ManageSite application and a DHCP server.
However, our experience with both servers, and all other factors being relatively equal, we feel the edge goes to the RLX system. This is largely due to its Control Tower 4 management suite, which, in its fourth generation, offers a mature, easy-to-use interface and well-done integration of all necessary functions.
RLX 300ex: A mature blade server product that should serve well in a Web farm or clustering application
The RLX 300ex chassis is a 3U chassis that is both deep and heavy. Its 24 slots are accessible behind a locking swing-away front panel that holds six fans. LEDs indicate which blades are operating, and the rack and chassis ID number. On the back are dual redundant power supplies, four fan-out connectors (or two optional gigabit ports, one for the internal and one for the external network), a three-port switch for the management network, and dual RJ-12 jacks for linking multiple units on the back. Each blade can support one or two 2.5 inch drives from 20 GB to 60 GB, up to 2 GB of memory, and an 800 MHz Pentium 3 processor (the 800i blade), a 1.2 GHz Pentium 3 processor (the 1200i blade), or a 1000 MHz Transmeta processor (the 1000t blade) CPU. Each blade is also equipped with an RJ-45 jack for a dedicated serial console if desired, and three 10/100 Ethernet interfaces.
The RLX 300ex Chassis
The first slot in the first chassis must contain the Control Tower blade. It runs the Control Tower 4 management application and is accessible from anywhere on the management network via a Web server. Only one Control Tower blade is required, no matter how many units are installed. The rest of the slots can be filled with up to 23 more blades. However, while the 800i and 1000t blades use a single slot, the 1200i blades each consume two slots, for a maximum of 12 in a chassis.
Given that the current typical application for a blade server is within a clustering environment or Web farm, we suspect that most users will opt for the higher density and lower cost of the 800i or 1000t blades.
Installing the chassis is simply a matter of plugging the blades in, connecting the network connections, and plugging in the unit. There is no power on/off button, so the blades start when the chassis is plugged in. Installing operating systems on the blades is simple. RLX provides installation images of Red Hat Linux 7.3, with 7.2 or 8.0 optional, or Windows 2000 Server.
The system we received had the network connect cards -- there are four high-density connectors, each of which fans out to 12 RJ-45 jacks. There are two connectors for the internal network and two for the external network. Each connector handles the odd or even slots for its network. Optional 24-port switch modules are available that aggregate the 24 blade ports into two 10/100/1000 connections that can be trunked for 2 Gbps throughput on the internal and external networks. The switch modules simplify cabling, but the high-density connectors are a less-expensive alternative if switches are already installed in the network operations center.
The management switch module on the back of the system includes a DHCP server, which means that for the initial configuration, any PC with a Web browser can be plugged into the management module and used to run access the Control Tower application through any standard Web browser.
The Control Tower software is the RLX's biggest strength. The fourth-generation management and deployment application really shows its maturity in ease of use and consolidation of all management tasks in a single, simple interface. Designating IP addresses and server names is simple, as is selecting the operating system to install. Individual blades can be accessed through either a virtual serial console or a virtual KVM interface that makes installing software very easy, even in the Windows environment where a serial terminal would be problematic. Access to each blade includes access before the blade is running an operating system, allowing BIOS-level configuration and hardware resets through the management console.
The normal installation process involves deploying an operating system image to one blade, configuring the operating system, installing applications as necessary, configuring the applications, then capturing the operating system image and deploying it to the other blades. The Control Tower application makes the entire process straightforward, from configuring the server names and IP addresses for each system to capturing and deploying modified images. Capturing a Linux image took us only a couple of minutes, and deploying it was equally quick.
Once the blades were configured, the Control Tower application also made it simple to monitor both hardware and software on all the blades.
Vendor Home Page: RLX
Product Home Page: RLX 300ex Chassis
Operating Systems Supported: Red Hat 7.2, 7.3 and 8.0, and Windows 2000 Server
Price: Control Tower 4, $2,999; 300ex Chassis, $2,899; 1200i blades start at $1,529; 800i blades start at $1,249; 1000t blades start at $999; fully loaded chassis with 16 blades, $29,082
Pros: Mature and well-integrated forth-generation management and deployment software and third-generation hardware;
Various blades provide flexible hardware configurations, including up to 120 GB of storage per blade and 2 GB of RAM;
Easy setup and configuration;
Many additional applications from RLX partners, including load balancing, clustering, VPN, and firewall applications
Cons: None to speak of
TUD-2016: A new player in the blade server marketplace offering solid performance
The first thing we noticed about the TUD-2016 was that installing it is not quite as simple as doing so with the RLX unit. First, a DHCP server is required, even if the blades have static IP addresses. Next, a workstation or server is required to install and run its ManageSite application and M-Director blade.
With the setup Tatung shipped to us, the application was pre-installed on an external PC running Windows 2000. In addition to the ManageSite application, the management PC requires MySQL, MyODBC, a PXE server, an IIS Web server, and an FTP server. Setting up the management PC from scratch would probably require about eight hours of an administrator's time.
Physical configuration of the system is straightforward, although we found accessing the blades individually to be somewhat difficult since the front panel is attached with four screws, rather than simply locking. This might induce administrators to leave the panel off for convenient access to the blades and their function LEDs, which could lead to a security problem.
Each blade features a KVM connector that can be used to configure an operating system or install applications. Redundant network and management modules are available on the back, along with redundant power supplies. This full redundancy means a single failure cannot take the whole system down.
TUD-2016 Ultra-Dense Blade Server
Once the system is plugged in, the ManageSite 1.1 management application is started. The Web-based interface is logically organized, although we did find the read-only aspects of some things confusing. For example, you can see the IP addresses of the management interfaces, switch interfaces, and server blades, but you cannot change them through the application. Configuring IP addresses required attaching a serial cable and using a serial terminal to log in. There are also separate logins and passwords for the management blades, the management console (ManageSite), and the serial management consoles, making it difficult to know (and remember) which login and password is required.
Creating and deploying operating system images is fairly straightforward, although the system we received supported only Red Hat 6.2 and Windows 2000 Server for rapid deployment. (Red Hat 7.2, 7.3, and 8.0 support is scheduled to be available some time in the first quarter of 2003.) Other operating systems that can be installed via the network can also be manually installed, giving a fair degree of flexibility. Deploying Red Hat 6.2 to a blade took less than 10 minutes, and deploying Windows 2000 Server required about half an hour, due primarily to the larger size of the operating system image.
ManageSite also features good tools for monitoring the hardware and software.
Vendor Home Page: Tatung Science & Technology
Product Home Page: TUD-2016 Ultra-Dense Blade Server
Operating Systems Supported: Red Hat 6.2 and Windows 2000 Server and Advanced Server; Red Hat 7.2, 7.3 and 8.0 support to be available soon
Price: Chassis with dual fan modules, dual power supply modules, dual management blades, and dual switch blades is $5,890; server blade with an 800 MHz Pentium 3 processor, 512 MB RAM and a 40 GB hard drive is $1,490; Amphus ManageSite for platform management and fast automatic deployment comes bundled; fully loaded system with 16 blades, $29,730
Pros: Integrated switch modules reduce cabling complexity;
Full redundancy of all components ensures system reliability
Cons: System setup and configuration is fairly complex;
Third-party management application means the possibility of two separate support requirements;
Access to the blades is inconvenient