Jumping the gun

They say it’s bad form to quote yourself, but events conspire to make me commit such a solecism: a couple of months ago, I commented that the ongoing spread of solid-state disks would “change the way we think about servers, and how we use them, in some pretty fundamental ways”. And, indeed, this month’s crop of reality checks fit so damned neatly with that prediction that I’m looking over my shoulder and checking all my doorways for Men in Black. Most of my activity, as winter and recession arrive at about the same time, has been concerned with the very large and the very small, with very little in the middle. It’s as though the solid, boring, well-defined server of old has been swept away forever – everyone I deal with now suddenly seems to be working outside their company with only a laptop on the one hand and a gigantic storage array on the other, taking the place of those medium-sized boxes that were once left to sieve the dust in the corner of their office.

Jumping the gun

I hear you say that this is just the inevitable march of time and all that – it’s progress, baby. Clearly and obviously, just as the mainframe was swept away by the PC so the fixed LAN will be swept away by fearless, wireless-laptop-only road warriors connecting to monstrous server rooms scattered along the Columbia River’s hydroelectric facilities. Regrettably, this is one of those predictions where the reality turns out to be far less satisfactory than the theory promised. One of the biggest problems with it is, are you really sure the people who built those giant servers you’re depending on actually know what they’re doing?

This month, I was asked to take a look at a truly modern monstrosity, a server straight out of the wet dreams of any datacenter manager. Based on a standard Intel chassis, this appliance runs a Xeon CPU, a standard if plentifully-optioned Intel motherboard, and a well-regarded SATA RAID card: all 16 of the drive cage slots on the front of the machine were filled with sizeable SATA drives, and starting up this monster delivered enough flashing lights, whirring drives, zooming fans and grinding progress bars onscreen to make you feel you were definitely in the presence of heavy metal. Except that in performance terms it just wasn’t getting it on – I have 1GHz servers at home that go faster. Now, 6TB of disk space isn’t to be sniffed at (even after you discover that emptying the previous contents of all those terabytes takes several hours), and CentOS is a very highly regarded sub-species of Red Hat Linux, but something somewhere was slugging the performance of this machine, so that it responded more slowly than my X31 ThinkPad.

Opening this machine provided a frisson of satisfaction, because it’s very definitely a well-engineered piece of kit. You don’t see many genuine Intel server cases around, which is because Intel encourages its resellers to stick their own badges on and aim for “manufacturer” status (which in turn upgrades their status with Microsoft). There’s no doubting the build quality purely in physical terms of sheet metal thickness, airhandling, memory expansion and all that good stuff that lengthens tick-charts and raises comparative scores. Inside this case each cable from the RAID card is responsible for a “strip” of four drives mounted on a daughterboard, so these four strips are each connected back via a single cable to the RAID card. Inside, the RAID card’s BIOS (a mythical beast whose visage we can never show you, since it materialises so briefly and so early during startup that it can never be screen-grabbed) all 16 of the drives appear separately, and they’re then combined into as many logical devices as required by the configuration utility.

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