Hardware Today: Year-End Server Room Wish List

by Drew Robb

From dual-core servers to disaster recovery and power management solutions, what should the well-stocked server room have on its wish list?

As the holiday season approaches and 2005 winds down, it is once again time for system administrators and IT managers to complete their budget requests. For those long on funds and short on ideas, this article introduces some interesting possibilities to forward on the the powers that be. In addition to servers, storage, recovery, monitoring, and security devices, as well as power quality management gear can simplify data center issues.

Dual-Core Christmas

Most IT departments want to get their hands on the latest dual-core technology to see how it performs in the real world. Penn State University's high-performance computing (HPC) department, for example, wants to add dual-core Sun boxes. It is particularly interested in the SunFire V40Z server, a machine that can hold up to eight AMD Opteron chips. The starting price is $13,995.

"The next batch of servers we order will be dual core," says Vijay Agarwala, director of HPC at Penn State. "I think dual core is a significant technological advance."

For a less-expensive entrance into the dual-core universe, HP offers an alternative for $4,299. The HP ProLiant DL 380 comes with Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) Intel Xeon-based 2.8 GHz dual core processors (2x2).

"Dual core servers with SAS technology help customers consolidate business-critical application environments to reduce complexity and cost while increasing business agility," says Colin Lacey, director of platform marketing, Industry Standard Servers, HP. "With SAS being the logical evolution in networking and storage, bottlenecks are eliminated and the communication speed between drives and host servers is substantially increased."

A Disaster-Free Holiday Season

With the events of the recent hurricane season fresh in their minds, many IT professionals are taking a closer look at disaster recovery and fault tolerance (FT). NEC offers the Express5800/Fault Tolerant Server with two redundant sets of four Intel Xeon MP 2.8 GHz CPUs. It is designed with complete hardware redundancy — every component has an identical twin, so there is no single point of failure. If a component does fail, it provides instantaneous failover to the redundant component. Pricing begins at $21,000.

"Available for both Windows and Linux, the Express5800 FT server delivers higher performance and added protection against downtime at the application level," says Brad Lightner, director of product and solutions at NEC Solutions (America). "It offers up to 99.999 percent continuous availability."

If that's too spendy to progress from wish list to purchase order, less-expensive, yet worthwhile solutions are available. Some data protection products, for example, have come way down in price. Unitrends Data Protection Unit (DPU) provides rapid recovery for multiple servers. It is an integrated hardware and software appliance that uses disk-to-disk data protection at an entry price of about $8,000. In addition to data and applications, it can restore a full operating system along with passwords and permissions. System snapshots can be taken as often as desired.

"The Bare Metal Plus software in our DPU's provides file-level backup and recovery," says Mark Phillippi, director of product management at Unitrends. "If a server crashes, it can be fully restored in about 30 minutes. Businesses can recover from a site failure in a couple of hours."

Another recovery technology getting a lot of media mileage is Continuous Data Protection (CDP). Top-of-the-line systems can run to the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But a little start up called Lasso Logic has priced its business-quality Lasso CDP units starting at less than $1,000. The system takes an initial full copy of all files, then records changes as they occur. The user right clicks on any file or previous version of the file to recover it.

"The procedure takes a few seconds — a lot faster than having to find the right tape, call a busy IT person, and then find your file," says Anna Yen, general manager of Lasso Logic.

>> Encryption and Monitoring

Encrypting the Wish List

Security comes in many forms. For some it may mean having a nice home, money in the bank, or perhaps a decent burglar alarm system. For system managers, however, it is more likely to manifest as dreams of more secure backups, freedom from voltage surges, or a system to eliminate worries about environmental threats.

Decru DataFort (Decru just acquired by Network Appliance) appliances encrypt all data before it goes to a SAN or to backup tape. For SAN quality appliances from Decru, expect to pay around $25,000 per unit.

"DataFort storage security appliances secure data at rest using wire-speed AES-256-bit encryption, secure access controls, authentication, and secure logging," says Michele Borovac, Decru's director of marketing. "They can be deployed transparently, with no changes to applications, servers, desktops, storage, authentication, or user workflow, and negligible impact to performance."

Encryption alternatives are available from Vormetric, Neoscale, Kasten Chase, and others. Each has a slightly different approach or architecture.

This technology is gaining traction because of the publicity surrounding a spate of thefts and losses of backup tapes heading to offsite "secure" locations.

"If you are sending your backup tapes by UPS truck, please stop," pleads W. Curtis Preston, vice president of data protection services at GlassHouse Technologies, a storage consultancy and services firm. "And if you really must ship tapes offsite, make sure they are encrypted."

Powering Up

When server room staff thinks power supply problems, they typically consider an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) or a surge suppressor. Recent studies by Bell Laboratories, however, indicate fewer than 4 percent of power-related problems would be addressed by such devices. Bell Labs found that small surges accounted for more than 80 percent of problems.

"Power problems caused by small surges, spikes, and sags in the electricity supply result in screen lock-ups, time-outs, and delays," says Bahram Mechanic, CEO of SmartPower Systems, a maker of power protection and conditioning equipment. "Servers, workstations, and networking gear can best be protected by using transformer-based filters [TBFs]."

Recent technological advancements in the field of power conditioning have now yielded devices that provide "computer grade" power at the same price as simple surge protectors and a fraction of the price, weight and size of isolation transformers. TBF units provide basic protection against massive spikes up to 6000 volts as well as tiny spikes. SmartPower Systems' Computer Guardian, for example, is a TBF that is available for $110. For server grade UPS, the SmartPower UPS costs an additional $250.

Monitoring the Festivities

For those who want to stay on top of the server room environment, the Netbotz Monitoring and Management Appliance could come in very handy. This IP-based server room device monitors temperature, humidity, water, smoke, airflow, decibel levels, amperage, dust, and motion. The Netbotz 500 base station costs $2,199. Additional modules are available — camera ($509), fluid detector ($99), and temperature sensor ($99). The Netbotz 500 pilot pack includes two appliances, two camera pods, two sensor pods, and a water detector for $13,429.

"Netbotz appliances are designed to protect data centers, IT closets, or remote locations from damage," says Tom Chomicz, a system engineer at CDW Government. "By providing early warnings via e-mail, PDA, phone, pager, or SNMP trap, minor issues can be prevented from becoming big disasters."

And one side benefit is that if you're too busy to attend the office party, you can strategically place your server room cameras to keep an eye on the festivities.

This article was originally published on Monday Nov 14th 2005
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