Sun Fire X4600, Combining the Need for Speed With Energy Efficiency

Thursday Jun 21st 2007 by Charlie Schluting

When it comes to servers, speed isn't nearly as important as good design, redundancy and close attention to detail. The Sun Fire X4600 aims to deliver all this -- along with with extreme flexibility.

Woo hoo! We got our hands on the first 8-socket Opteron server on the market — the Sun Fire X4600 from Sun Microsystems. This well-designed 4U system packs more power than we knew what to do with (really). That's 16 processor cores, courtesy of the Opteron 8000 series chip. Other important features include:

  • Up to 256GB of DDR2 667MHz memory
  • Four hot-swappable SAS drives with integrated pseudo-RAID
  • Six PCI-E and two PCI-X slots
  • Four 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports, plus integrated management based on IPMI
  • Four 2-way redundant 950W power supplies
  • A standard x86 platform that can run Solaris, Linux and Windows

Like most OEMs these days, Sun is paying close attention to cooling efficiency. As part of its approach, you won't find cables strewn about the innards of the X4600. Instead, wide open spaces behind the CPU boards allow for maximum airflow. The eight CPU boards each stand on-end directly behind four humongous fans. From the front of the case, two circles are apparent in the front mesh. The fans are that size — nearly 4U tall. Each side contains two fans, doubled up for maximum airflow and redundancy.

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Flexibility is the name of the game. Not only can the X4600 run a wide variety of applications very well, it can also run any number of operating systems. We wiped the Solaris 10 installation off our demo unit and installed Red Hat Linux. After a pleasant installation experience, we decided to move to Ubuntu, which isn't listed as a supported OS. Ubuntu was then used throughout the various tests run on the server.


Sun has placed eight dual-core Opteron processors in this beautiful chassis. The 8218 Opteron chips that were shipped with our X4600 support hardware virtualization, or Pacifica, as AMD calls it. Pacifica is hardware assistance for translating memory addresses, which translates to supreme virtual machine performance. Historically, VMware may have imposed as much as a 40 percent overhead when running virtual operating systems, but with hardware support, this overhead can be less than 5 percent.

Performance, if you need any convincing at all, is sublime. Everything we threw at this server ran faster than we'd ever seen on other Opteron servers. At a loss for words, and ideas, we began running four processes of Folding@home.

Surprisingly (and impressively), the X4600 didn't seem to care that four of its cores were running at 100 percent. We left Folding running for weeks while performing random other tests. Everything seemed just as fast as when the X4600 was idling. Although we did not run VMware, we feel confident that the various reports of eight to 16 fully loaded operating systems are valid. Really, we couldn't slow this machine down.

Other goodies

The X4600 has what we will call pseudo-RAID. The RAID controller is really an inexpensive LSI SAS1064 controller that does not support RAID-5. This is the same RAID controller also in the X4100 and X4200 servers. Historically, Sun has not been keen on providing RAID in its servers. It prefers customers attach servers to a SAN or assumes they will use ZFS to create a RAIDz pool out of the four SAS drives. For uses that require some sort of data protection against drive failure, SAS drives can at least be mirrored — though this will consume half of your space.

The Sun Fire X4600
The Sun Fire X4600

Hardware management in the X4600 is based on the industry-standard IPMI specification. Like other Sun AMD servers, it includes a Web-based GUI for remote BIOS access and SSH for console access. The remote KVM via a Web GUI is quite slick; just open a Web browser, point it at the management interface, and a Java applet will load. It works in Firefox and any OS.

The 4-gigabit Intel network cards are the 82546EB chip. This is important to know if you're planning on doing anything slightly more advanced, like 802.1q (VLANs), depending on the operating system, of course.

Eight PCI slots should enough to accommodate any user. Four are x8 PCI-E, two are x4 PCI-E, and the remaining two are PCI-X (64-bit 100MHz). These are managed by an nVidia CK804 chipset, the same as some Tyan motherboards. It's always good to know what's really in these servers, both because it's interesting and because the hardware compatibility list (HCL) is quite limited. Unless you're really looking for warranty software support, don't worry about it; it is all industry-standard stuff, and any recent flavor of Linux or BSD should run on the X4600. Of course, Solaris x86 feels right at home on this server.

The idea is to use this extremely powerful server to consolidate servers. The X4600 the most powerful Opteron server on the market, and it's listed on VMware's HCL. It may seem counterintuitive to think that this server with four 950W power supplies can actually be an energy saver, but it certainly is designed to be. Take your six heaviest loaded servers and consolidate them onto the X4600. Theoretically, you will consume roughly the same amount of power. Once it's clear that there's still CPU and RAM to spare, go ahead and consolidate even more servers. In fact, just two of these machines could likely run most critical and load-intensive enterprise services in a redundant fashion, assuming a modest-sized infrastructure.

Saying this server is "fast" doesn't really do it justice. Speed isn't nearly as important as good design, redundancy, and close attention to detail from a seasoned server manufacturer. Combine that with extreme flexibility and speed, and you have the X4600. When the quad-core Opterons are available, Sun plans to offer an upgrade path for X4600 owners. That will make it 32 Opteron cores in a reliable 4U chassis.

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