The Sun X2270 is a low-cost, 1U rack mount system starting at just $1,488. The X4270 is the X2270's big brother, a 2U system starting at $3,445. Both servers can run one or two Intel Nehalem CPUs, from the 2.0GHz E5504s to the high-end 2.93GHz X5570s. But whereas the X2270 packs a lot of compute power in a somewhat constrained chassis, the X4270 offers slightly more power in a much more expansive box. My evaluation units both had two X5570 CPUs and 24GB of DDR3 RAM.

The quick skinny: The X2270 would do extremely well as a front-end Web server, a small database server, or a member of a virtualization farm, with the addition of a few NICs or an HBA. It's constrained by a single power supply, a single PCIe slot, only a pair of NICs, and four disk drive bays, but the low cost offsets these limitations, depending on the application.

The X4270 is the best of both worlds, offering the 2U form factor that adds significant expansion opportunities and a wealth of local disk options. This is a shoe-in for a database server, application server, storage server, or basically anything you can throw at it. With the ability to house more than 2.3TB locally across sixteen 146GB SAS drives, four gigabit NICs, redundant power, and six expansion slots, there's little that this box can't handle.

Virtual test bench

To test each server, I opted for my baseline VMware test application, which is a LAMP stack packaged as a vSphere vApp with four VMs. This test is designed to mimic a large, database-driven Web application, using a randomized mix of dynamic and static page delivery. It's built on four CentOS 5.3 servers: a single MySQL server built with four vCPUs and 8GB of RAM, two Web front-end servers with two vCPUs and 4GB of RAM each, and a load balancer with a single vCPU and 1GB of RAM. The Web servers run a tweaked Apache 2.2 Web server, with content mounted on an NFS share to the database server. The database server runs a highly tweaked MySQL 5.1.25 installation and exports the Web root to the front-end servers. All load balancing is handled by Nginx, running in the load balancer VM.

The test is built with nine vCPUs on purpose, in order to eclipse the eight physical cores present in the servers under test. Also, the static/dynamic call ratio, though randomized, is seeded to bring all boxes to a maximum load equal to the number of vCPUs in each box. The VMs communicate across an internal vSwitch, with only the load balancer directly linking to the lab network. All load generation was driven from ab, the Apache benchmarking tool, running 100,000 requests per test pass, 20 concurrent connections.

Slim and speedy

The X2270 is big on CPU and RAM but short on most other assets. In keeping with the Nehalem design, it can address up to 96GB of DDR3 RAM across 12 DIMM slots. It has "just" four hot-swap 3.5-inch SATA drive bays up front, two Gigabit Ethernet ports rather than the "normal" four that most Sun servers can claim, and a single PCIe 2.0 16x low-profile expansion slot, all backed up by one 600W power supply. It does include the Sun ILOM for remote management, with full graphical support out of the box.

In the lab, the X2270 moved like a much more expensive system. I did two test runs: one with the vApp running first on a single 500GB SATA drive, then another with the VMs housed on an NFS share to a SAS array run from an Adaptec Snap Server 650. The difference was noticeable and resulted in a performance increase of around 15 percent. With the single local disk against a RAID 5 array of SAS drives on the filer, this isn't surprising. In fact, applications that are more disk I/O intensive should show an even greater performance increase.

There's lots of power in this little package. The only downsides are the two Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, rather than Sun's normal allotment of four, and the lack of a redundant power option. In many applications, a server like this will need more than two Ethernet interfaces, and redundant power is always a plus. But for raw cost/performance, the X2270 is a very good deal.

Big on the inside

The X4270 uses 2.5-inch SAS, SATA, or solid-state drives instead of 3.5-inch SATA drives, allowing Sun to pack 16 hot-swap drive bays into its 2U chassis. It's almost out of necessity that the X4270 also has an integrated RAID controller that can handle RAID levels 0, 1, 5, 10, and 50.

The X4270 also bumps up the maximum RAM level to 144GB, using 18 DDR3 DIMM slots, and doubles the X2270's supply of Gigabit Ethernet interfaces with a total of four. It also expands on the slot assortment, with six 8x PCIe 2.0 slots available. In addition to this expansion bus, the X4270 has an internal CompactFlash slot, which makes building the X4270 into a VMware ESXi server extremely simple: Image a CompactFlash card with ESXi, slide it into the slot, and boot the server as a diskless VMware ESX host. Note that this can also be achieved with the X2270, albeit with the use of the internal USB port, not a CompactFlash slot.

Like its smaller sibling, the X4270 offers Sun's ILOM management processor and several external USB ports. Also like the X2270, the X4270 performs extremely well in the VMware tests, putting up numbers marginally better than the X2270.

This says more about the X2270 than the X4270. While they're both very good examples of Intel's Nehalem processor architecture, the low-end X2270 can hold its own with its pricier brethren.

OUR VERDICT

Both models are impressive entries into the Nehalem-based server market. Sun's x64-based hardware has been superlative for the past few years, and these new servers are the latest in a line of solid server platforms. Leveraging the surprising power of the Nehalem architecture, they should find a home just about anywhere - assuming that Oracle's acquisiton of Sun doesn't rock the boat. It's too bad that so many questions surround Oracle's takeover. Sun has been putting out extremely inexpensive, feature-rich, and solid x64 servers for quite some time, and it's a shame that the future of Sun's hardware production is uncertain. Note to Oracle: Sun's hardware development is doing very well - no need to make any changes.