Home > business, smugmug > Server Vendor Analysis So Far

Server Vendor Analysis So Far

January 25, 2007

From my Amazon S3 posts, I know plenty of startups and small companies read my blog, so I thought I’d give you some insight into how our search for a new server vendor is panning out.

It’s interesting, because this space is vastly different than it was even a few years ago. The core hardware (CPU, RAM, disk, networking) is all identical, so the companies are starting to compete on service and differentiation in other ways. That’s good for all of us and very similar to what’s happening in the enterprise software space with open source.

For us, our big hot buttons are:

  • Great lights-out management, preferrably over network rather than serial.
  • Good order turnaround time (7-14 days).
  • Good support contracts (24×7 support, 4hour replacement)
  • Price competitive. We’re not necessarily looking for the lowest price, but we expect our final choice to be in the ballpark with the others. We’ll pay a bit of a premium for better management or service or something tangible like that.

On with the show:


Our current main vendor for x86 gear, they’ve finally swung into action and have a good plan of attack for solving our crashing problems. No immediate results, but I’m a developer and an engineer – I understand the need to monitor the problem, gather data, and narrow in. Good stuff.

I’ve been happy with Rackable for most of 4 years, but in the last year they’ve been very slow to get us new hardware and getting some movement on this particular problem was tough in the beginning. I realize, and have always realized, that Rackable isn’t Sun/HP/Dell, but that was sorta the point – when we were tiny, getting attention from the big guys was tough. Now we’re small, rather than tiny, and getting their attention is proving to be tough.

Another knock against them is their management modules are serial based, rather than network based, which we’re growing tired of.


We have at least one HP employee in the servers group who’s a passionate SmugMug customer. Big points there, in my book, since that means we have extra avenues if and when we have problems.

Another *huge* win for HP is their Integrated Lights Out 2 (iLO 2) product. All the vendors offer basic integrated management on some level, but iLO 2 seems to be head-and-shoulders above the competition. It can share a network port with the OS, simplilfying our network architecture, including VLAN support. It does remote full KVM, remote device (DVD/CD/floppy) attachment, and a million other amazing things. Given we’re a small company, strong remote management is a huge bonus for us.

On the downside, our passionate SmugMugger isn’t a sales guy, and the sales contact hasn’t moved as fast as we would like, given our situation. We’re a small company, so I’m not surprised, but Sun and Dell moved faster. We still don’t have much insight into whether there’s an offering at HP that’ll serve this particular need. Finally, HP seems to want to set up a meeting before getting the ball rolling. Personally, I’d prefer to verify that the products and prices are in the right ballpark before spending time organizing and attending a meeting.


No-one at Dell came out of the woodwork in response to my blog entry, but they were easily the fastest on the draw getting a quote (in our preferred format, PDF, no less) in our hands with no mess and no fuss. I think we just cold-called them and they whipped something up fast. Big points, in my book, since it lets us get a feeling for how competitive both their hardware and pricing is.

I believe, though, that their lights-out management is an add-in card, rather than built-in, and it certainly doesn’t share a network port or anything. Dang.


Quite a few SmugMuggers over at Sun, which again, gives me the warm and fuzzies. Nothing quite like having contacts in the company who use, love, and count on your product. Sun also wanted to set up a meeting, rather than whipping out a quick quote, but they were extremely fast and proactive about it, rearranging their schedules and bringing along some big guns. Not only did this flatter us (given our small size), but I think I’m beginning to understand why they’re profitable again and why I’m starting to think that trend will accelerate: they’re trying to give love to small startups because they know some of them will grow into huge companies. If they build a strong relationship early on, the theory goes, they’ll have their business forever. I happen to think this is a very good strategy. There have been some hiccups, as Matt Mullenweg points out, but Jonathan Schwartz responded in a way that I wish every CEO would. Hopefully they work the kinks out.

I love, too, that Sun is changing and innovating once more: embracing x86 & Linux is huge, ZFS is the coolest filesystem ever, and they’ve had an unusually high volume of clever product announcements this year (Thumper, Black Box, Sun Spots, etc).

Yesterday, too, I got a first-hand glimpse of how Sun’s employees feel about Jonathan, their new CEO. They were glowing, speaking in reverent terms about him. That bodes well for their new direction and future.

Alas, though, I have some past experience with their lights-out management, and while it’s adequate, it’s not nearly as good as HP’s. It can’t share a network port and doesn’t offer the other advanced features HP has. At least it is network-based, rather than serial (I believe it does both, actually, which could be a boon to some people).

UPDATE: Dave pointed out in the comments that Sun’s Opteron management lets you have graphical console, keyboard, mouse, DVD, floppy, and ISO support. Plus, it shares one of the GigE ports. I’ve only used the non-Opteron boxes, so I’m probably both out of date and not used to what the architecture differences are. I could have sworn, though, that Sun told us yesterday, in person, that it doesn’t share the network ports. Anyway, sounds like Sun’s doing a better job on management than I initially gave them credit for.

The bad news

The specific platform we want (two CPU sockets, sixteen DIMM slots) doesn’t seem to be readily available from HP, Dell, or Sun. We’re going back-and-forth to make sure, but none of the systems published on their sites seem to offer this. Hopefully someone can deliver something. Rackable, however, does – they’re just crashing for us at the moment.

UPDATE: Sun has one too, the Sun Fire X2200. I just somehow overlooked it. Game on!

In case you’re curious, it’s because 2GB DIMMs are at a price point similar to double 1GB DIMMs, so we’d rather have 10 32GB boxes than 20 16GB boxes for this application.

At this point, I think Sun wins on service & attention while HP wins on product. Which we’ll choose, I still have no idea. 🙂

Have any experience, good or bad, with any of these vendors? Let me know.

Categories: business, smugmug
  1. J. S.
    January 25, 2007 at 2:49 pm

    We’re currently on week 10 of what was said was a 3 week delivery time from HP. Some part is backordered. Hmm… That would have been great to know before we spent $60k. 10 weeks is far too long. Like you we need our stuff in 7-14 days. It was a stretch to go 3 weeks. And now it’s going to be week 11 soon. Thank god we were planning ahead and didnt need these right away.

    We had the same problem with our last 2 vendors. Big on promises, short on delivery. They all typically take around 2-3 months. When you’re ordering the newest stuff I’ve just come to expect that. We’ve ordered some in stock HP stuff from sellers on eBay and received them within days a few times. Slighty older technology but great stuff at a great price. I think they’re HP authorized too so you can get the support contracts, etc.

    Honestly though I don’t know what to think about the support contracts. We’ve been buying them but with them taking 2-3 months to get us a server I have ZERO confidence in their ability to deliver a replacement part within 4 hours if a database or critical server fails. I’m just starting to buy 2 of those critical machines and spending a lot more money.

    About my only place I haven’t tried is Dell but I’m seriously considering it for next time.

  2. January 25, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    The Sun Fire X2200 M2 has 2 sockets, 16 DIMM slots, and the Lights Out Management shares one of the 4 GBE ports:


    I’m surprised at your comments about the management on Sun’s Opteron systems. With just a browser you get remote graphical console, keyboard, mouse, DVD, floppy, and ISO image support.

  3. January 25, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    @ J.S.

    Thanks for the info. I’ll keep it in mind.

  4. January 25, 2007 at 4:56 pm


    Wow, so it does! We may have a winner!

    I haven’t played with the Opteron management, just the T1000 management. Sounds like it may do exactly what we want. Thanks for the info!

  5. January 25, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Sun has a variety of management processors in its systems (perhaps too many, but that should improve in the future).

    The smaller UltraSPARC systems like the Sun Fire T1000 have ALOM, which doesn’t have web-based access and has a dedicated network port.

    The X4000 series “Galaxy” Opteron systems have ILOM, which adds the web-based KVM functions and also has a dedicated network port.

    The X2000 series Opteron systems have the same functionality as the ILOM but share one of the main system’s network ports.

    I think it’s kind of cool to download an ISO image to your laptop and then boot your server from it. 🙂

  6. Bob Samuels
    January 25, 2007 at 6:11 pm

    I just got a Snapfish promotion from HP – why would you want to give them your money? All they’ll do is use it to put you out of business. It’d be like buying a server from Kodak.

  7. January 26, 2007 at 4:02 am

    Well, I can’t claim to be unbiased: I’m currently the CTO for Sun’s storage business, and was previously the project lead for ZFS. That said, I work on this stuff because I’m passionate about it. ZFS on Thumper is great combination for cost-sensitive and density-sensitive environments. 48 disks + 4 Opteron cores per 4U of rack space for around $2/GB. Drop me a line if you’d like to get together for a mutual deep-dive on Sun’s technology and your business needs. It’d be fun…

  8. February 2, 2007 at 4:15 am

    Note that the X2200 uses the nvidia nforce chipset for it’s onboad SATA controller, and two of the four network ports (the other two are broadcom). My experience with the Linux drivers for the nvidia hardware has been less than stellar.. I have no idea how good/bad the Solaris drivers are. The X4100, by comparison, uses all “proven” hardware with mature drivers (in both Linux and Solaris). LSi SAS controller, Intel GigE. That being said, the X2200 is priced considerably better, and gets you rev. F opterons and faster memory.

    If you do look at IBM, their x3550 and x3560 boxes are really quite good. Fast, solid component selection (LSi SAS, broadcom gige), and well built.

  9. February 4, 2007 at 5:10 pm


    I’ve just begun using SmugMug, and do not yet have any public galleries, but I’ve worked at Sun for 7 years now. I have always worked on Linux while at Sun (coming from the Cobalt acquisition). My software goes in to ILOM (Integrated Lights-Out Management), now becoming common on new systems.

    My particular portion is work on Fault Management. While I knew you have had some problems with Solaris 10 performance in the past, if you can work through them one of the big advantages will be fault management: what happens when part of one DIMM goes bad? With Solaris, the defective pages are mapped out of service and a notification posted. Similar actions can occur for CPU cores/chips.

    All of this is just to point out that there may be more advantages to Sun products than the specs indicate, with some of the nifty new goo being less obvious than we might like sometimes.


  10. February 5, 2007 at 11:30 am


    I have something like 14 years of heavy-duty Linux experience, and the Solaris user experience is just too foreign to me, I’m afraid.

    That Fault Management stuff sounds awesome, truly. Wish I could use it. 🙂


  1. February 7, 2007 at 6:02 pm
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