Marathon FTvirtual Server 6.1.2 review
The fault-tolerant server has traditionally been well beyond the means of most SMBs. But Marathon’s FTvirtual Server (FTvS) aims to deliver these very services with a keen eye on value. It’s quite unique, as FTvS is software that supports standard Intel-based servers and blades, so unlike products that use proprietary hardware it won’t lock you in with one vendor.
The concept centres round the use of a pair of identical servers and these must have exactly the same processors, memory and even BIOS versions. FTvS can use Pentium 4 and Xeon processors, and this latest version adds support for Pentium D and dual-core Xeons. The physical servers, or CoServers, are linked together and the FTvS software presents a single virtual server to the network. The servers are lockstepped so transactions are executed simultaneously on both CoServers to ensure they’re synchronised perfectly. As all components are duplicated, if any fail the software moves all operations to the working component. This also applies if a complete CoServer fails. The shift in operations is conducted automatically and seamlessly so users will be unaware of any problems. Marathon’s optional SplitSite feature allows the two servers to be placed up to 100 miles apart to provide site disaster tolerance.
For testing, our thanks go to Boston for supplying us with a matched pair of Supermicro low-profile rack servers equipped with 3GHz Pentium 4 HT processors, 512MB of PC3200 SDRAM and an 80GB Serial ATA hard disk. The first task is to decide how the servers are to be connected together. For lockstepping to function, the servers must be linked directly by up to two Gigabit Ethernet crossover cables. You’ll also need adaptors for presenting your services to the network over a virtual connection and you can optionally use a fourth for isolating management access. In our test scenario, we complemented the embedded Gigabit adaptors with an Intel Gigabit card and went for single CoServer, redirected and management links.
Your first job is to install the Windows Server OS on each CoServer. Another advantage of FTvS is it doesn’t require any modifications made to the OS or proprietary drivers loaded. Once these have both had the relevant service packs applied, you then load the FTvS software on them. This must be done on CoServer1 first, followed by CoServer2, and during these phases you define what roles each network adaptor will play. Using FTvS, we then created a virtual boot disk on the physical drives, after which we loaded a third copy of the OS. Finally, you load the FTvS software on your new virtual server, and then you can install your chosen applications.
The supplied Manager utility can be accessed locally from within the virtual server desktop, from either CoServer, via a Remote Desktop link or from a separate Windows client on the optional management LAN. The simple main interface shows the status of all servers along with redirected devices and you can shut down or restart the virtual server, the CoServers or the entire FTvS environment. A separate Device Redirector utility is used to configure virtual devices and from here you can create new virtual disks. Once ready, they’ll be automatically mirrored across the CoServers. It’s a pity the Manager doesn’t offer any alerting facilities, as it would make sense if it could send out email or pager messages to warn of a failure. Marathon does provide an SNMP MIB, but smaller sites are unlikely to have an SNMP management product already available to be able to use this. You’ll also need to manually update the servers on a regular basis with the latest patches and hot-fixes and schedule a full restart to ensure all three are running precisely the same updates.