Pentium Pro power and the death of EISA

With the ProLiant 5000, Compaq has given its successful ProLiant 4500 server line a makeover: The company added the more powerful Pentium Pro CPUs, dual-peer PCI slots, greater memory capacity, a faster overall architecture, faster network controllers, and improved fault tolerance. (The 4500, which I reviewed in "The Compaq Report," August 1996, is still available.)

The system came equipped with four 200MHz CPUs, each with 512KB of on-chip Level 2 cache (results of my performance tests start on page 80). The 5000 has 576MB of RAM and ten 4.3GB drives. With a price just under $60,000, this configuration is aimed at high-end enterprise environments, and I had fun with it.

Nuts and Bolts
The ProLiant 4500 was always a top performer in the Windows NT Magazine Lab. It is a stable, high-performance system that didn't fall down on the job and gobbled up every test I threw at it.

The ProLiant 5000 is no different. A new version of Compaq's SmartStart setup procedure and full support for Windows NT 4.0 made installation and configuration a snap. I got the system in six different boxes, yet building the system and making it operational were easy. You don't have to go through the SmartStart procedure if you don't want to, and you can exit without losing your setup information; after you format your drives, setup stores temporary configuration files for future use. I did a stock installation of NT 4.0 and had no problems making it work. This capability is a change from before, when you needed Compaq's NT installation CD-ROM. (By the way, NT 4.0 works just fine on the 4500, too.)

Bits and Pieces
The first and biggest architectural change you'll notice from the 4500 is that the 5000 uses Pentium Pro CPUs. These systems performed as much as 60 percent better than the 4500 in my tests, reducing response time and handling more transactions under heavy load, while maintaining a lower overall CPU utilization.

The 5000 sits on a faster CPU/memory bus than the 4500; the 5000's CPU/memory bus is capable of 540MB per second (MBps) instead of only 267MBps. This configuration improved the system's performance: It let the Pentium Pro CPUs run at full tilt (you don't gain much with fast CPUs on a slow bus).

The 4500 and 5000 chassis are identical. They have the same number of expansion slots (eight) and drive bays (four, hot-pluggable), but the 5000 is more upgradeable than the 4500. The 5000 can accommodate up to 4GB of system RAM using 64-bit Dual Inline Memory Module (DIMM) vs. the old 1GB capacity, the new system uses a 256-bit memory bus instead of a 128-bit bus, and the 5000 is fully Error-Correcting Code (ECC)-protected.

Additionally, you can upgrade your CPU types as your needs increase. You can mix CPU cache sizes using two CPU boards, but clock speeds must be the same for all processors.

Compaq finally added PCI slots to the I/O subsystem. The 4500 supported only EISA, so the machines were more complicated to upgrade and slow (EISA offers only 33 MBps data transfer rates). The 5000's new dual-peer 64-bit PCI bus can run at up to 267 MBps total throughput. It still has EISA slots bridged off the PCI bus, but you will consume valuable PCI bandwidth if you place slow EISA cards in the system (memory buffering is slower for EISA, as well). The 5000 has five PCI slots, one EISA slot, and two shared PCI/EISA slots.

You can use the same fast disk controller, the SMART-2 Array Controller, in the 5000 as in the 4500, but use the SMART-2/P PCI version for better performance. This controller allows online RAID configuration updates (change the RAID type used, add or remove drives, etc.), and you don't have to reboot for the changes to take effect. The system board still has an integrated 32-bit Fast and Wide PCI SCSI-2 controller.

Compaq has switched from the old 10Mbit Netflex-3 NICs to the new Netelligent 10/100 TX PCI cards. The new cards give you both standard and fast Ethernet on one card, with autosensing and support for redundant NICs (when NT supports them).

Enterprise Features
Beyond performance and upgradeability, service and support are considerations. You don't want your system to crash. Both the 4500 and 5000 have optional redundant power supplies and standard hot-swap disk drives. Compaq added features such as backup processors to the fault-tolerant capabilities in the 5000: In the event of a processor failure, the system reboots automatically, using one less CPU. Compaq has extended the pre-failure warranty to include the CPUs in addition to the drives and memory. If you use Compaq's Insight Manager software, it will warn you of impending doom and tell you which component is showing signs of failure. When you report this problem to Compaq, the company will replace that component for free under the server's three-year onsite warranty. This software will monitor disk usage and status and environment statistics such as temperature and voltage.

To Buy or Not to Buy
Although Compaq systems have always been at the high end of the price scale, the ProLiant 5000's feature set, overall design, and excellent performance put it at the top of purchase lists for 1997. I'd rather not return this machine at the end of the review. I'd like to keep it around and move our entire company onto it.

Compaq ProLiant 5000
4 200MHz Pentium Pro CPUs with 512KB Level 2 cache
576MB of ECC RAM
Smart-2/P Array Controller
10 4.3GB Fast and Wide Seagate drives
2 External storage cabinets
4 Netelligent 10/100 TX PCI NICs

Price: $56,188 (as tested)