IBM eServer x250

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IBM eServer
Scalable server aimed at
web or file serving and
transactional workloads
 Pros: Outstanding hardware design and
       construction, easy to install
 Cons: Hefty price tag, additional hardware
       also pricey
 Price: £7363 (£8651 inc VAT)

Despite being the instigator of the
desktop PC revolution, IBM made its
name from supplying large mainframes.           CPUs, 512MB of
It’s been doing it for decades, so it           RAM and four
certainly knows how to build powerful           36GB U160 SCSI-3
machines. The eServer x250 is no                hard disks connected to
mainframe, but neither is it a desktop          a ServeRAID controller.
PC server. Instead it draws on aspects          From the above description
of both to create an extremely capable          you might think this machine is
machine.                                        nothing like a normal PC and                                           based mainframe. Once installed you
     If you are running a server of this size   from a physical point of view that is       Not quite big iron but     can effectively forget about the
and capacity, the chances are that its          mostly correct. But once you’ve run         still a pretty hefty       hardware inside the box and use it as
job is mission-critical. If any part of it      through the included setup CD you can       server. The eServer        you would any other server. This makes
does fail, you need to know that you            install pretty much any operating           bridges the gap            the x250 extremely attractive if you
can get to it quickly and if possible           system you would install on a more          between PC and main-       require a powerful server with plenty of
replace the faulty part without having to       standard PC. IBM lists Windows 2000,        frame, providing great     room for expansion and require useful
shut the machine down. Getting inside           NetWare, SCO and Linux as                   expandability options      levels of reliability and redundancy. So
the x250 is as simple as a few turns of         compatible. For our tests we used a         and intense processing     who would the x250 be suitable for? If
the thumbscrews holding the top plate           standard i386 Red Hat 7.1 install which     power                      you are dealing with very high web or
on. This then slides off to reveal the          correctly detected and configured all of                                       file serving loads then a server
interior of the server. One of the most         the available hardware during the setup                                           like this would be perfect,
immediately noticeable things inside            process, although there are a couple                                                simply because of its
the x250 is that there are lots of              of install options that have to be set                                                expandability. If your load
coloured stickers. These relate to              according to IBM’s instructions to                                                    increases, just drop in
removable components. Everything                ensure the machine boots                                                              another processor and some
from the CPUs, the hard disks, and the          correctly. This is a major boon                                                       more RAM. Database
power supplies to the cooling fans is           as it automatically provides                                                          operations would also be
modular and can be removed in just a            application-level compatibility                                                       well suited to this machine
few seconds. Almost every removable             with all of the standard                                                               because of its multi-
component also has a status light to            platforms. More powerful                                                               processor capability and
indicate if it has failed. To test this we      servers that reside completely                                                         high-speed data bus
removed one of the CPU voltage                  within the mainframe domain                                                            options provided by the
regulator cards (also modular) and              tend to require non-standard                                                           high-spec PCI bus and the
switched on the server to be greeted by         operating systems through their                                                        use of hardware RAID cards
a warning light on the front panel, a light     use of custom CPUs and                                                 and optional gigabit Ethernet cards. The
on the internal status panel indicating a       motherboard hardware. Fortunately                                      major downside of such a machine is
voltage regulator failure, and a third light    companies like IBM have put                                            the cost: a single CPU version with 2GB
immediately adjacent to the socket              considerable effort into porting Linux to                              of RAM starts at a shade under £6000,
which should have contained the actual          their ‘big iron’ machines so, even if                                  and with Pentium III Xeon CPUs costing
regulator.                                      binary compatibility is unavailable,                                   around £1500 each and a ServeRAID
     The x250 has space for up to four          source code can simply be recompiled.                                  controller costing about the same, you
Intel Pentium III Xeon CPUs, 16GB of                However, the days of the single                                    will definitely need a sizeable budget to
RAM and up to 364GB of storage                  mainframe appear to be numbered                                        justify an x250. If you have that kind of
space. Also included are six 64-bit PCI         since clustering technology has                                        budget it will be worth every penny.
slots, two of which run at 66MHz (the           become extremely cheap and even                                        Chris Jones
remaining four run at the more standard         multiple x250 class machines come in                                   Contact:
33MHz). Our test model contained two            cheaper than, for example, an S/390-

                                                                                                                     LinuxUser/December 2001 – January 2002 4 9

                                             the OS.                                                               feature for server installs rather than the
DISTRIBUTION                                     However, don’t let that put you off.                              workstation product featured here, but
                                             This is a very worthwhile upgrade to                                  the tiny Make RAID button which
Red Hat Linux                                anyone using a previous version of Red
                                             Hat, or indeed any other distribution.
                                                                                                                   appears during the install is another
                                                                                                                   frequently requested feature. It allows
7.2 Workstation                              The major changes you’ll notice in this
                                             new version are most apparent in the
                                                                                                                   you to create and control software RAID
                                                                                                                   partitions (levels 0, 1 and 5 being

Edition                                      installer, with such features as a
                                             journalling filesystem by default and
                                             easy configuration of software RAID.
                                                                                                                   supported). Additionally, it does its job
                                                                                                                   quickly and efficiently, being based
                                                                                                                   around kernel code that’s been around
Stable, updated distro with                  Nothing new in terms of technology, but                               for a number of years.
solid new features and                       this is Red Hat’s first release that truly                                 The only other new feature in the
updated apps                                 brings these features to the average                                  installer that you’ll notice is the addition
                                             user.                                                                 of GRUB, a bootloader alternative to
 Pros: Ease of install, hardware support,        Journalling filesystems are                                       LILO. GRUB features a snazzier
       journalling filesystem (finally)      something of a buzzword at the                                        interface, can access data on any
 Cons: Expensive, cut-down support           moment. From the smallest workstation                                 installed device, and supports diskless
 Price: £70 (£82.25 inc VAT) Workstation     to the largest mainframe installations of                             systems and remote terminals.
                                             Linux, journalling is probably the most                               However, if you’re used to LILO, then
                                             oft-quoted reason why Linux isn’t yet                                 you’re probably better off sticking with
                                             ready for the big time. Some                                          it. GRUB didn’t seem to like the
Once you’ve installed the new release        distributions already have journalling                                previously-existing installs of Windows
of Red Hat’s Linux distribution, you         support (notably SuSE’s choice of                                     2000 and 98 on our test machine.
probably won’t notice too much               ReiserFS), but this is Red Hat’s first.                                    Assuming your install finishes
difference from the previous versions.       Ext3 is the filesystem of choice here,                                without problems (as ours did on
Sure, there are updates to most of the       which will please many due to its speed,     7.2 may not be cutting   several test machines, including a
core applications (KDE and the kernel in     claimed reliability, simple migration from   edge but it does bring   notoriously fussy laptop), after a reboot
particular are positively bleeding-edge      existing ext2 partitions and, in common      power to the people.     you’re up and running. If you’re used to
now), but in a similar way to Red Hat’s      with most other journalling filesystem,      Ext3 by default and      Red Hat in general, you won’t notice too
previous x.2 releases, Red Hat 7.2           no more lengthy waits for fsck on            software RAID made       many changes; a few application
seems to focus on stability and fully        reboots.                                     easy are just some of    updates, the inclusion of the Nautilus
integrating already existing features into       Again, software RAID is more of a        the features of this     graphical file manager, decent hardware
                                                                                          new and highly stable    and user management tools and some
                                                                                          Red Hat release          new features and updates to the
                                                                                                                   Kickstart auto-install system.
                                                                                                                        After using the system for a few days
After using                                                                                                        as a general workstation, the
                                                                                                                   outstanding stability of the system is
the system                                                                                                         most noticeable. Gone are the quirks of
                                                                                                                   recent Red Hat releases. Everything
for a few days                                                                                                     works out of the box just fine. The only
                                                                                                                   problem you may face is kernel
as a general                                                                                                       compilation. No matter how hard we
                                                                                                                   tried, we just couldn’t get the kernel
workstation,                                                                                                       source supplied (2.4.7) to compile
                                                                                                                   properly. However, this won’t affect too
the out-                                                                                                           many potential buyers of this product,
                                                                                                                   and the current kernel source (2.4.14)
standing                                                                                                           compiles flawlessly.
                                                                                                                        As in previous versions, security
stability of                                                                                                       updates and bugfixes are available
                                                                                                                   using the up2date tool. There have
the system is                                                                                                      been several problems with this over
                                                                                                                   the last few releases of Red Hat, and
most                                                                                                               sadly they don’t seem to have entirely
                                                                                                                   gone away. One of our test systems
noticeable.                                                                                                        froze completely while running up2date
                                                                                                                   for the first time. However, this may
Gone are the                                                                                                       have been a hardware issue and it’s still
                                                                                                                   highly worthwhile to make sure your
quirks of                                                                                                          system is completely Red Hat
                                                                                                                   compatible. Red Hat’s Hardware
recent Red                                                                                                         Compatability List has been extensively
                                                                                                                   updated for the new release.
Hat releases.                                                                                                           Overall, 7.2 is an excellent, up-to-
                                                                                                                   date Linux distribution that’s simple to
Everything works                                                                                                   install, reliable to use, and well up there
                                                                                                                   with the competition.
out of the box just fine.                                                                                          Russell Tweed

5 0 LinuxUser/December 2001 – January 2002

                                              connected via a Computer Interface                                    From here it is simply a matter of using
SERVER MANAGEMENT                             Module (CIM). Connection between the                                  the cursor keys to select one and using
HARDWARE                                      units is by means of standard UTP                                     enter to switch to that machine. Getting
                                              patch cables which makes cabling easy                                 back was omitted from the quick start
Raritan Paragon                               as these cables can be readily obtained
                                              or made up.
                                                                                                                    section of the manual unfortunately, but
                                                                                                                    is simply a matter of double-clicking the
KVM                                               The Matrix Switching Unit is in a 1U
                                              19” rack-mount chassis, although no
                                                                                                                    scroll-lock key. This is reconfigurable if
                                                                                                                    you prefer another key.
                                              mounting brackets are supplied. On the                                    Once up and running there are a
High capacity KVM switch                      front is a small display and some                                     number of configuration changes that
                                              buttons which are used for resetting                                  can be made to make life easier. The
 Pros: Easy to set up and use, convenient
       cabling                                and identifying the unit. The back is                                 most obvious is to add names to the
 Cons: Manuals not the best, expensive for    much busier with 32 channel ports and                                 machine menu for easier identification.
       just a few machines                    eight user ports. There are also ports for                            Delving further you find that User
 Price: Matrix Switching Unit (UMT8)          connecting to other UTM8 units.                                       Stations can be used in a passive
        User Station (UST1) US$1045           Included in the box is a power cord, two                              viewing mode which would be ideal for
        Computer Interface Module             decent length UTP cables and an A4                                    use in a classroom. You can also
        (UKVMP) US$182                        manual.                                                               operate in either private or shared
                                                  Eight User Stations can be                                        mode. This basically defines whether or
                                              connected and each can control any of                                 not another user can take over control
                                              the 32 machines connected. They have                                  of the machine if you have been idle for
Many KVMs allow sharing of a                  metal cases which are strong enough to                                a period of time. There is also the ability
keyboard, monitor and mouse across            sit under the monitor. There are ports at                             to manage users, defining which
either two or four PCs. This unit from        the rear to connect the keyboard,                                     machines they can control and whether
Paragon, however, brings the concept          monitor and mouse, as well as a UTP                                   they have administration rights.
to a whole new level of flexibility. For a    port for connecting back to the UMT8.                                     The Paragon is a sophisticated
start you get to control up to 32             There is also a pass through power                                    system, particularly useful when you
machines from a single unit, more if you      connection for the monitor, although no                               have large numbers of servers to work
connect units together. To work with this     cables are included either for pass                                   with, or in training and testing
many machines you are going to need           through power or connection to the                                    environments. If you only have a few
more than just a switch to choose             UMT8.                                                                 machines to connect up the costs
between them. Add to this the fact that           Only two of the Computer Interface                                involved probably aren’t justifiable. It’s
you can plug up to eight sets of              Modules were tested. The passive unit                                 also worth thinking about what
keyboard, monitor and mouse to mix            (UKVMP) simply connects to the                                        functionality you will gain, particularly
and match control, and you’ll realise         keyboard, monitor and mouse ports of                                  with SSH which gives you all the control
that this is no ordinary KVM.                 your PC and then, via a UTP patch                                     you need while the server is running.
     There are three distinct types of unit   cable, to the UMT8. The UKVMC adds           Get switched on in the   The key advantage is the ability to work
that make up the Paragon system. At           connections for using a local keyboard,      matrix. Much more        with the boot process without having to
the centre of the system is the Matrix        monitor and mouse, which remain live         than your common or      play with cabling. That said, this is a
Switching Unit (UMT8) which the other         when the machine is being controlled         garden KVM, the          very nice piece of kit if you can justify
units connect to. The User Station            via the KVM.                                 Paragon is a highly      the cost.
(UST1) has a keyboard, monitor and                Once connected you are presented         configurable server
                                                                                           management solution      Paul Tansom,
mouse connected and, once plugged             with a login screen followed, once                                    Contact:
in, this gives you access to a menu           logged in, by a menu of the ports            for those who want
                                                                                           total machine control
system for controlling machines and           available on the UMT8. Those that have
                                                                                           right from power on
configuration. Each machine is                a machine connected are highlighted.

The Paragon is a sophisticated system, particularly useful when you
have large numbers of servers to work with, or in training and testing
environments... The key advantage is the ability to work with the boot
process without having to play with cabling.

5 2 LinuxUser/December 2001 – January 2002

                                                                                                                       system is aimed at high-end graphics or
DISTRIBUTION                                                                                                           number-crunching work, though, which
                                                                                                                       is where the dual-processor aspect
Mandrake 8.1                                                                                                           really comes into its own. The average
                                                                                                                       user (and even the hardcore gamer) is
                                                                                                                       unlikely to notice the extra processor
A no-nonsense, well                                                                                                    much in normal use though.
supported and solid                                                                                                        The system came supplied with Red
distribution which brings                                                                                              Hat 7.2 installed, but only Red Hat 7.1
Linux within the reach of                                                                                              on CD. The normal user probably
both desktop and enterprise                                                                                            wouldn’t notice this anomaly until they
                                                                                                                       tried to install or update a package from
users alike                                                                                                            the older version and ran into countless
 Pros: Easy to install, top-notch apps and                                                                             problems. A correct CD version wasn’t
       good support                                                                                                    forthcoming at the time of review, so we
 Cons: Too many cuddly penguins featured                                                                               were unable to test the proper install
 Price: Standard 29 euros (34 euros inc.                                                                               version. DNUK ships a base Red Hat
        VAT), PowerPack 59 euros (69 euros
        inc. VAT), ProSuite 149 euros (175                                                                             system with some modifications, most
        euros inc. VAT)                                                                                                noticeably the current stable kernel at
                                               packs in the Apache web server,              How much longer is it      the time of system shipment.
                                               directory servers for LDAP NIS and           before Linux can ful-          The default install of packages on
                                               Kerberos, a firewall and router, file and    fill the goals of the      our system was more than adequate for
As a self-confessed Mandrake junkie            print server and PostgreSQL and              average user as            our needs. KDE was selected as the
already, I was only upgrading from 8.0         MySQL database servers. The kernel           assuredly as its com-      default desktop and, once a sensible X
but this still involves a complete reinstall   version is 2.4.8 and provides support for    petitors? On the evi-      configuration had been set up, worked
of the guts of the distribution with only      more than 1024MB of physical memory          dence of the latest        flawlessly. KDE in particular seems
your /home partition (where your users         as well as SMP (symmetric                    Mandrake, not too          speedy on this machine, the
live) staying put. Booting straight from       multiprocessing).                            long at all. In fact, it   combination of the extremely powerful
the the first CD (or conveniently from a           With its ease of installation, supreme   might already be           GeForce2 MX400 graphics adaptor and
single DVD) you are launched into the          functionality and excellent presentation     there                      sheer processing power working well
installation menu from where the usual         of many of the latest cutting edge Linux                                together.
procedures of choosing partitions,             applications, it’s hard to criticise                                        A slightly strange configuration
mount points and configuring packages          Mandrake. Mandrake comes close                                          choice is that the machine comes as
are performed. The graphical                   being to a testament of the state of the     Close in spec to the       standard with an 8x DVD-ROM drive,
installation screens have online help          Linux nation, a maturing product whose       Ultimate Linux Box,        which is not supported by Red Hat, and
and are clear and intuitive. They will best    ease of use and depth of functionality is    DNUK’s Workstar            is set up as a standard CD-ROM drive.
guess your configuration for you if you        quickly becoming unrivalled.                 sports dual Athlons,       Several after-market software and
so wish, but for those who like to fiddle,                                                  and excellent Geforce      hardware solutions are available to
                                               Richard Bown,              2 MX graphics
the ‘expert’ mode still lets you control       Contact:                                          allow use of this, but DNUK does not
the nuts and bolts of the installation.                                                                                       appear to offer these as an option.
    Configuration of your network,                                                                                                      Our system came with an
printer and your dial-up connections           WORKSTATION                                                                             ATA100 IDE hard drive, but
can all be performed during the                                                                                                        SCSI is available as a more
installation process. If you get it right
first time you can boot right back into a
                                               DNUK Workstar                                                                           expensive option for those
                                                                                                                                       who absolutely must have
work-ready Mandrake box. If you don’t
get it right first time the Control Centre     720-DDR                                                                                 the extra performance.
                                                                                                                                        Other options available
(drakconf) is always there to help as is
the Software Manager (rpmdrake).               workstation                                                                              include an array of sound
                                                                                                                                        card and backup drive
These packages are both handily                 Pros: Blindingly fast, fantastically                                                    options, CD writers,
presented as desktop icons. Also on the               expandable                                                                         UPSs, and gigabit
desktop are links to some of the                Cons: Poor software setup and                                                            Ethernet adaptors.
Mandrake help sites such as Mandrake                  configuration                                                                      However, the option to
News, Mandrake Campus and                       Price: £1293 (£1519 inc. VAT)                                                            change the case is
Mandrake Expert.                                                                                                                         conspicuously absent.
    Mandrake 8.1 of course is bundled                                                                                                    The only case available is
with the usual suspects; Koffice               The 720-DDR is latest in DNUK’s line of                                                   absolutely gigantic and,
including Kword, Kspread, Kivio                high-performance Linux-based                                                              while this is great for
(diagramming), Kchart, Kpresenter and          workstations. The system as reviewed                                                      expansion, it does look
StarOffice 5.2. There are also                 was configured with two Athlon                                                             out of place on the
communications tools, mail tools, chat         1800MP processors, 512MB RAM, a                                                            average desk.
clients, the usual browsers (including         GeForce 2 MX 64MB graphics card,                                                                 Overall, this is a
Mozilla 0.9.4 and Opera 5.0) and the           10/100 Ethernet, and a 40GB IDE hard                                                       well-constructed and
standard choice of desktops and                drive containing a pre-installed and pre-                                                  specified system for the
window managers (GNOME 1.4 and                 configured version of Red Hat Linux,                                                       high-end workstation or
KDE 2.2.1) with the highly configurable        with the latest kernel image (2.4.13 in                                        power user, with a few minor
and very stylish environments that go          this case).                                                             drawbacks which may deter
with them. There are also of course the            It came as no surprise to find that                                 newcomers to Linux from getting 100
usual multimedia players, graphics             this was an extremely fast system. In                                   per cent out of it.
tools, the latest development tools and        particular, my personal benchmark of                                    Russell Tweed
a few games to keep you amused.                loading time for StarOffice was met in                        
    On the server side Mandrake 8.1            around 5.5 seconds. This particular                                     Contact:

5 4 LinuxUser/December 2001 – January 2002

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Tags: eServer, x250
Description: IBM eServer x250