NEC Minimizes Downtime
With the release of the NEC Express5800/ft 320La, the first offering in NEC Corp.s Express5800 server line, the company is giving its customers the power of high availability for Windows 2000 Advanced Servers in a single server chassis. In eWeek Labs tests, the NEC Express5800/ft 320La serverwhich is really two servers in a single box functioning as an Active/Active cluster pairproved to be an interesting backup system that will probably be popular for applications where downtime is extremely costly (including large retailers, fleets of automatic teller machines and so on).It is also important to note that the Express5800/ft 320Las hardware redundancy, although impressive, doesnt make the system impervious to software-based hazards such as viruses, which can (and do) account for large amounts of hardware downtime. From a hardware perspective, the Express5800/ft 320La is identical to Stratus Technologies International Inc.s comparably priced ftServer 3210. The reason for this is that NEC and Stratus collaborated on the development of this hardware architecture. The two companies marketing approaches are different, however. Stratus sells its boxes directly and offers a 100 percent uptime guarantee, making it a better choice for sites that dont have enterprise management suites in place. NEC doesnt make an uptime guarantee because it uses resellers to provide the service and maintenancea more conventional approach to system sales. The Express5800/ft 320La does include NECs ESMPRO Management Suite, which is comparable to the SNMP management suites that are bundled by major server vendors including Compaq Computer Corp. and Dell Computer Corp. ESMPRO detects hardware faults and critical physical measurements such as temperature and voltage, which are vital to IT managers who have to manage several systems from a remote location. The NEC Express5800/ft 320La, currently the top of the line, has a list price of $21,975. This fully redundant system consists of four Pentium III/800MHz processors that function as two dual-processor logical groups; 256MB of RAM (two mirrored 256MB chips); integrated, 10/100M-bps networking; and Windows 2000 Advanced Server with a 25-user pack license. Each dual-processor logical group has its own supporting hardware, which provides high availability in the event that a processor, memory chip or hard drive breaks down. We were impressed with the Express5800/ft 320Las modular design, which allowed us to replace processor and memory units on the fly. We could also hot-swap power supplies. The NEC Express5800/ft 320La runs transactions concurrently on both logical partitions of the server, a process in which all of the components (processors, memory, hard drives and I/O modules) run in lock step. The advantage of simultaneously running these transactions together is that transaction losses can be avoided in the event of an equipment failure. In contrast, when using a software-based, high-availability clustering system, such as the Co-StandbyServer from Legato Systems Inc., some transactions cached in memory or in the write queue of a servers RAID controller can be lost in the event of a failure. In addition, as a hardware-based high-availability system, the Express5800/ft 320La fails over instantaneously. By comparison, failover can take several minutes on a software-based solution. This is because a "heartbeat link" is established between the mirrored software pair. When the signal is disrupted, failover occurs only after one member of the pair determines the one at the other end of the link is "dead." Software-based cluster solutions also require the use of custom-made scripts to start the application failover process. The NEC Express5800/ft 320La requires a single set of Windows Advanced Server software licenses to function. In contrast, to set up software clusters, IT managers must buy additional application server licenses and operating system licenses, even though only one server is active at a time. NEC provides hardened device drivers for its Express5800 server line, which should go a long way toward reducing operating system crashes. Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The biggest negative we found in the Express5800/ft 320La, which shipped in late December, is its limited scalability, which restricts it to two-way server systems.