In response to the market’s dual-core mania, Sun is releasing its new Opteron-powered Galaxy line of rack-mounted, dual-core servers, intended to augment its Sun Fire line of x86-based machines. The question is: given Sun Fire’s somewhat lacklustre popularity record, will the Galaxy fare any better among customers looking to stick with Sun?

Stellar hardware
At first glance, testing this hardware seemed easy. The 1U Galaxy 1 Sun that was shipped to us is definitely a well-designed, rack-oriented server from the case to the motherboard. All components are modular, meaning everything can be removed and easily replaced. Many of them are hot-swappable, like the power supplies, drives, and even the fans. CPUs, likewise, can be added without the need for a motherboard swap, at least for the foreseeable future. CPU upgrades, however, still require BIOS swaps.

You’ll also find several detailed niceties, such as status indicators on the motherboard for all major components, colour-coded RAM sockets, and the capability to run BIOS updates across a network without the need for a bootable OS. This last feature translates into updating BIOS updates for a whole rack of servers, for example, using a central network distribution point.

If we have a quibble here, it’s with the Galaxy’s disk subsystem. The installed 73GB Fujitsu SAS disks surprised us because they’re actually 2.5-inch drives. Such drives tend to be a little slower than their full-sized SATA or SCSI counterparts, so this worried us a bit at first, but our fears proved unfounded, as we discovered later in our testing.

Within the clustering style of computing, Sun’s done a credible design job, especially apparent by the inclusion of the IPMI (Intelligent Platform Management Interface) out-of-band management protocol.

Getting started with this capability proved tricky: The documentation points to four Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, but we found only three exposed on the back of the case. Turns out the fourth is the IPMI interface attached to the management daughterboard that boots first and brings up the rest of the machine -- truly a lights-out feature. The Galaxy’s support for IPMI indicates a serious commitment to a total lights-out management environment with the capability to manage just about anything in the chassis, including fan speed, CPU temperature, smart power supplies, and remote mounting of removable media over IP. Disks aside, the Galaxy’s hardware engineering seems excellent.

The darker side
Galaxy’s software side isn’t quite so rosy. Initially, you’ve got a choice of Linux (Red Hat Enterprise) or Solaris for x86 during initial installation. Although Sun still won’t support Windows at this stage, the Galaxy’s hardware is Windows-certified, and the company says it’s making Windows hardware drivers available for download from Galaxy’s support site.

Downloadable drivers are nice, but Windows users will certainly want the ability to access dedicated Sun support personnel with OS and emergency questions -- and so far, Sun isn’t offering that. Without support, you might be able to run any number of operating systems on Galaxy in a lab, but in a production environment you’re still going to stick with what’s fully supported -- and that’s Unix with an “S” or an “L.”

Stick with Unix, and Galaxy starts to twinkle -- but the glow is definitely brighter if you use Solaris rather than the penguin. To make Solaris sexier, Sun is re-packaging most of its existing software line in an effort to maximise Galaxy’s usefulness out of the box. Solaris support enables Galaxy users to opt for Sun’s Java Enterprise System platform as well as its storage and network management platforms, all installed out of the box. That’s a real plus for existing Solaris users.

How we tested
Sun’s Solaris emphasis became even more glaringly apparent during testing. Our initial operating system installation went fine, running the default Solaris selection. When we tried to re-gen the machine using its own Red Hat image, though, the box clogged hard. When we tried to return to Solaris, the box refused that OS as well. We tried to find new drivers on Sun’s site, but the machine’s pre-production status apparently meant that Sun didn’t allow access to Galaxy documentation and support images.

We returned to our Red Hat battle, but the only Galaxy-compatible images we could get from Sun were based on a floppy installation -- and our Galaxy 1 didn’t have a floppy. Not to be deterred by anything so trivial, we connected a USB floppy drive, only to be stopped hard when it turned out that the Galaxy’s pre-production motherboard was using out-of-spec USB ports. Worse, all our CD swapping somehow stressed the DVD drive, causing it to stick; again, the result of pre-production plastic on the case.

We did manage to bring Solaris back up on the Galaxy, but this required manual tweaking rather than the bundled pre-production installation CDs. When we had the Galaxy 1 running under Solaris again, we compared a number of common operations against a no-name dual-Opteron white box also running Debian 64-bit -- and the Galaxy was competitively quick in this shoot-from-the-hip, apples-to-oranges comparison. We were especially surprised to see that the Fujitsu 2.5-inch SAS disks were pretty speedy. We’d expected noticeably sub-level disk performance, considering that the Fujitsu disks were only 5,400 rpm, according to Sun’s documentation. The no-name machine was running 10,000 rpm SATA drives.

This problem was cleared up, however, when we took the drives out of the box. It turns out that these were 10,000 rpm SFFSAS (small form factor serial-attached SCSI) drives, and it further turns out that Fujitsu doesn’t even make 5,400 rpm SFFSAS drives. Sun’s documentation writer simply goofed. With all of these pre-production bumps, we simply didn’t feel this Galaxy was up to being benchmarked or graded -- any results simply would have been too questionable.

Sun seems to agree, commenting that all of our lab troubles could be traced back to the unit’s pre-production status. The documentation was still in the works, the Galaxy’s support site was still under construction, and much of the unit’s exterior hardware wasn’t production-grade. We’ll be getting a 2U Galaxy 2 when these units begin shipping, so look for some scores then.

Early bird bugs aside, however, what we’ve seen of Sun’s Galaxy represents a solid platform for data centre-oriented applications, with a heavy emphasis on Solaris users. Linux users will find initial installation images and full support, but only Solaris users will get the full benefit of Sun’s application library. Couple that with a fairly attractive price tag -- for a data centre-oriented machine -- and the Galaxy class should do well in that environment.

OUR VERDICT

We did our best to answer this puzzler by giving a pre-production Galaxy 1 -- graciously provided by Sun -- a test drive. Unfortunately, the Galaxy's pre-production demons proved a bit too much for a truly deep evaluation, so much so that we can't score the product until we get a shipping model. Even at this raw stage, however, it's obvious that Sun has put quite a bit of physical engineering effort into making the Galaxy line a good rack and data centre citizen.