Sun’s first foray into the AMD-based server market, the Sun Fire V20z, is nothing unusual -- beyond its dual Opteron processors, that is. What the company is offering is a solid x86 server at a good price, which can serve as a stepping stone for the company (and its customers) into the 64-bit world of x86, as long as you don’t mind its limited high-availability features. The server currently runs the 32-bit version of Sun’s Solaris 9 x86 operating system, as well as 32-bit and 64-bit flavours of Linux.

Sun has committed to releasing a 64-bit version of its forthcoming Solaris 10, but until that time, the company is in the unusual position of selling hardware that runs better on someone else’s operating system, namely Linux. In the meantime, the V20z would be ideal for Solaris x86 shops that must deploy servers today but plan on moving to the latest version of the OS -- and picking up 64-bit performance -- at some point in the future.

The V20z is a 1U high, rack-mountable server that supports as many as two internal processors, two internal hot-swap drive bays, two Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, and two PCI-X slots -- one at 66MHz, the other at 133MHz. The 66MHz slot shares a bus with the onboard Ultra320 SCSI interface, so the 133MHz slot should be used for both high-performance cards, such as FC (Fibre Channel), or for legacy 33MHz PCI cards, such as modems, to reduce interference with the SCSI interface. (A PCI bus slows down to accommodate the slowest device connected to it.)

For our lab test, Sun provided a well-provisioned V20z with dual Opteron model 248 processors (2.2GHz), 2GB RAM, and dual boot disks, one with 64-bit Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, the other with 32–bit Solaris 9 x86. In many ways, the V20z is almost identical to IBM's eServer 325, as well as several other dual-processor 1U-high Opteron servers on the market. Setting this server apart is its support for Solaris x86, as well as a very strong onboard management scheme.

On the hardware side, three items are worthy of special note. First, as with many 1U-high servers, there’s only a single power supply. That’s not unusual. What is unusual is that the power supply is not user-replaceable. So, if the supply dies, you’re stuck until a Sun technician can make a house call.

Second, Sun has installed an excellent onboard service processor, powered independently of the main server processors and accessible via a serial connection through SSH over a management 10/100 Ethernet connector or through a tiny LCD display panel on the front of the server. There’s no pretty GUI, but instead, solid hooks into the OS. Sun gets credit for making Linux a first-class citizen of the IPMI (Intelligent Platform Management Interface) 1.5-based system. IPMI is an industry standard for hardware monitoring, configuration, and error reporting.

Third, there are actually two 10/100 Ethernet connectors for the on-board management processor, connected via a three-port switch chip embedded on the motherboard. This configuration allows daisy-chaining of the management processors on their own out-of-band LAN segment; because management is not bandwidth-intensive, there’s no performance drawback to daisy-chaining the servers, and this would simplify rack cabling. Nice job.

We ran the V20z under both Solaris 9 and Linux; under both, the system was quick and responsive. We were dismayed, however, when reviewing Sun’s list of available options. You can buy FC cards and RAID controllers for the server -- and that’s about it. According to Sun’s Web site, many server accessories, including the company’s external disk arrays and tape systems, aren’t yet supported on the V20z.

That leaves the V20z server well-suited for use in a load-balanced Web farm, or in any other applications where decent CPU and I/O performance is required but where the server’s lack of high availability features would be tolerated. It’s a good server -- and Sun says it’s the first in a family of Opteron-based servers. Rumour has it that a four-processor Opteron server will debut in the third quarter. We look forward to seeing how the product family evolves with the forthcoming 64-bit Solaris x86.

OUR VERDICT

This 1U-high rack-mount server is suitable for deploying 32-bit applications under Linux or Solaris, or for running at higher throughput under 64-bit Linux. The server, Sun's first Opteron-based system, offers strong management features at a good price, but suffers from high-availability hardware that's weaker than others in the 1U space, and also from limited device compatibility with Sun's storage peripherals.