Server Snapshots: Sun in the Real World

by Drew Robb

When this Linux shop needed better performance than its x86 boxes could muster, it added Solaris T2000 servers for uptime and processing power.

Technology start up Real Time Matrix (RTM) needed power and reliability when it was ready to launch. Its existing x86 boxes were adequate during beta testing, but the company feared the servers might not prove up to handling the potential traffic volumes. To address that concern, management decided to implement the T2000 server with CoolThreads technology from Sun Microsystems of Santa Clara, Calif.

"We need a stable, robust infrastructure to process millions of items a day, match against millions of preferences and run 24/7," said Jeff Whitehead, CEO of The Real Time Matrix Corp of Oakland, Calif. "For high-speed, high-performance, 100 percent raw computing, we are finding it is cheaper and better on Sun and Solaris."

RTM is a matching company, which is to say, it sifts through a vast sea of live data from sources such as Internet blogs, news feeds and classified listings and presents a customer with what is requested. Every mention about a specific stock, company or product, for example, can be fed to a Web site and made available in real time. Sports organizations are the primary users at the moment.

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Soccer team DC United is one user. It harnesses RTM to feed all content on the club into a Web format such as a vortex, a portable and highly customizable publishing platform. For DC United, this includes live news feeds and live video clips. RTM also offers a free consumer product that is available for beta testing now.

"We process 2 million articles a day, bring all the data in to RSS II format, match customer preferences, and make it available with RSS feed," Whitehead said. "As we have up to 10 million requests for matching per day, our systems have to be stable."

The company began its operations using the Fedora core (the open source version of Red Hat Linux) running on AMD Opteron-based servers by Penguin Computing of San Francisco. These dual-processor, dual-core machines worked very well, according to Whitehead, particularly prior to launch. The matching engine ran on two such boxes, which provided 2 x 4 concurrent processors in a 2U box. The overall speed the early systems achieved ran into the hundreds of matches a second — well below the extrapolated volume. RTM looked around for an alternative.

"We found out about the Sun Start Ups Essentials Program, which enabled us to buy Sun machines cost effectively," Whitehead said. "As it could run Linux, we decided to try it."

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The first order arrived — a Sun T1000 with 16 GB of RAM. It also came with Solaris preloaded. Instead of immediately switching to Linux, however, the IT staff put Solaris through its paces. They were surprised to discover that it assimilated well with the existing Fedora core machines. As a result, the company decided to recompile some code and run the matching engine on Solaris.

"For us, Solaris was a no-brainer," Whitehead said. "We immediately went from a couple of hundred to 10,000 matches per second and up to 32 concurrent processes."

That original T1000 is used for testing. The production side is handled by a fully loaded T2000. It has 32 GB ram, two disk drives, dual power and the full redundancy needed for round the clock operation. This machine is dedicated as a high-speed correlation engine. Although it has up to 32 threads, Whitehead said it currently uses only up to 20 threads to achieve the 10,000 match per second rate.

"The T2000 can scale to handle all our matching requirements for the foreseeable future," Whitehead said. "We estimate it has the potential to deal with 200,000 matches a second."

Linux Shop Embraces Solaris
The use of Solaris at RTM is quite a change to what has been a traditional Linux outfit from the outset. Linux is the primary OS across the enterprise. And Whitehead remains a big Linux fan."For us, we will never move off Linux," he said. "We run a lot of technology on Linux and it is all working very well. Solaris 10 works seamlessly with Linux servers and workstations."

That said, he couldn't argue with the results obtained on the T2000 running Solaris. It replaced six x86 boxes and is cheaper to run.

"Our administrative costs went down with the one big machine as we can segment it," Whitehead said. "But with our business model requiring high-speed, high-performance, 100 percent uptime and maximum raw computing power, we are finding it is cheaper and better to be on Sun and Solaris. I'd estimate that we spend 50 percent less than if we had we gone with our original power, hardware and leasing arrangement."

Whitehead does the math. RTM purchased the servers with deep discounts via the Start Ups Essentials Program. It helps eligible startup companies by allowing them to purchase a range of discounted Sun products and services. Sun also offers free technical advice via e-mail and access to free software, such as Apache, MySQL and Perl (AMP), optimized to run on the Solaris 10 OS.

"We were ignorant of Solaris before so we had a few questions for support," Whitehead said. "They handled everything immediately and treated us like a big company."

Another aspect of the cost savings came via leasing. RTM leases space at a collocation facility for its servers. As only two units of rack space are needed for the T2000 and it runs cool, without needing much power, the bill from the colo is much lower. In addition, management costs are low because the administrator has to monitor one machine, not six.

"The T2000 never goes down," Whitehead said. "While we have relatively few problems with Linux, it's nice to never have anything go wrong."

Another One for Sun

Based on its success with the first T2000, RTM recently purchased another. This will be used to replicate the production environment for disaster-recovery purposes and added redundancy. Further, Whitehead said his company will use it to more gracefully roll in enhancements to the correlation engine into the production environment. Changes will be implemented via one T2000 while the other remains with the previous configuration. Should anything go wrong, the system can switch back to the original until any bugs are ironed out.

"I'd recommend that other startups try the T2000," Whitehead said. "Solaris is Unix, so if you know Linux, there is nothing to be afraid of."

This article was originally published on Friday Aug 24th 2007
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