crazy big

So in idly browsing the web today, I find a link to Sun’s CEO blog, who links to Sun’s Tuesday press conference, in which they introduce their crazy new Sun Fire server, the X4500.

Sun Fire X4500 top view
image copyright Sun Microsystems

When I first started out doing computer stuff, I started on DOS and early Windows, then moved onto Sun Sparc and Solaris equipment. Ten years ago, Sun with Sparc was the workhorse of the server and workstation computing world. With the advent of Intel-based servers (and the fact that you can usually buy ten to twenty Intel servers for the same price as one Sun Sparc server that performs the same or less as one of those Intel servers), and Sun sort of became the slow creaky grandfather of servers — everyone had a few in their back closet they couldn’t get rid of, but the Intel computers stole the show and ran the new, exciting, intensive applications. Solaris was a pain in the butt, too, but it worked for the business application side of things. If you were a funky internet company, you’d run Linux or FreeBSD to serve those newfangled “web pages”, but the database backend (and the real value of the business) would always be running on Solaris.

So Sun struggled along for a few years to find their way; they went to the super-crazy-big stuff with the baby-Cray type E10k and E15k, and tried the SGI method of trying to sell an Intel box for twice the price after adding a few pieces of plastic to the case.

It sounds like they let the nutty engineers with clue back in the driver’s seat, though. They came out with a couple of very interesting products today, the most interesting of which is this Sun Fire X4500 system. It’s basically a 2-CPU (AMD64-based) system with an assload of hard disks — 48 500GB disks, making for 24TB of raw storage. Even if you RAID-5 those, that’s about 19.2TB of space. Now granted, Sun’s listing this for $70k fully loaded, so it’s not exactly within reach of a Mr. Average Middle-Class Budget like me (of course I’m thinking of the MythTV system from hell), but still — most “enterprise class” storage systems that would give you even 10TB cost way more than that, if you throw in the server and other stuff necessary to make it work. And it all fits in 4U of rack space. (Which, as the guy in the press conference said, lets you put 1 petabyte in 4 racks. Not bad, that.)

With the I/O speeds Sun is claiming (2GB/sec — 6 8-port SATA controllers can’t be wrong), this may also blow away even fiber-channel storage systems.

The other thing that makes this cool is Sun’s recent announcement of ZFS — if it lives up to all the hype, it’s everything that Linux Software RAID plus LVM should be. It intelligently manages physical resources, does constant data integrity verification and recovery, and actually keeps data intact over long periods of time! (Whereas with Linux software RAID, the only way to get it to scrub and verify a mirror is to fail one of the drives, and hope that you kept the one with the good copy of the data.) The only down side is that right now it’s only really stable on Solaris. There’s an effort to port it to Linux, but that’s still very much In Development.

So you get a computer with a whole load of storage, and an OS with Storage Management with a Clue, for cheaper than something remotely comparable would be if you had to go build it yourself. (and at the moment, that’s what you’d have to do. Granted, putting together 48 500GB drives together with 3ware controllers or something would be cheaper, but I doubt it’d be quite as fast as the X4500 claims to be — and just try and find a case that’ll fit all those!)

That, plus the 16-way Sun Fire X4600 — 16 effective CPUs in 4U of rack space, if you use dual-core CPUs. (The system has 8 slots). We’ve been looking somewhat at using VMware ESX server to consolidate some of the lower-utilization servers we’ve got onto smaller hardware; I’m not sure what limitations the software would put on what you can do, but I’d imagine a good number of virtual servers can fit on a 16-way system. The downside again is price; this time it’s $67.5k. It’s about 3 and a half times the cost of a Dell server with four dual-core Intel chips (making an 8-way system).

So the pricing could still probably stand to come down from the Sun premium a bit. But the technology seems decent; it looks like Sun is starting to hit the middle ground of the market that’s outgrown what you can get from Dell and HP, but isn’t quite ready to take the multi-million dollar supercomputer plunge yet. And if they let the same crazy engineers keep driving things, it’s possible Sun will stage a decent comeback, and won’t be the strange has-been uncle that nobody talks about for much longer.

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