NEC dumps RISC in favor of high-end Intel servers

Did you notice that MIPS machines suddenly disappeared from North America? All over the United States, in companies large and small, MIPS servers just whiffed out of existence--at least, as far as Silicon Graphics (MIPS's parent company) and Microsoft are concerned.

Not only have all vendors that offered MIPS-based workstations and servers ceased production of US models, but Microsoft will not further develop NT versions or other support software for that platform. Sorry, folks. NT on MIPS is dead. Version 4.0 is all she wrote.

In light of these developments, companies such as NEC (which was a big player in the RISC server market) have turned their attention completely to Intel and now offer high-end enterprise servers based on the new Pentium Pro CPUs. These companies have abandoned RISC in North America, lock, stock, and barrel.

New Models
NEC's new Intel-based product family is the ProServa. I reviewed the ProServa SH, NEC's offering in the Pentium Pro enterprise category.

NEC designed these heavy-duty boxes specifically for 32-bit symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) operating systems such as Windows NT and Novell NetWare, so break out your enterprise apps and load them up. I tested a quad-processor 200MHz Pentium Pro with 512MB of RAM under NT Server 3.51 and NT 4.0 with SQL Server 6.5, using both 256KB and 512KB Level 2 cache CPUs. NEC sells the 256KB chips in systems of one- and two-CPU configurations and the 512s in one- to four-CPU configurations. The 200MHz Pentium Pro with a 256KB Level 2 cache is not well suited for four-processor use; it just doesn't scale. I received my test system before Intel or the server vendors that use these chips discovered the problems. (For the results of my tests and a discussion of NEC's caching strategy, see "Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 Scaleability," page 80.)

The ProServa SH is not a small box. It is much bigger than an ordinary full-tower case, and it can house a multitude of CPUs, memory modules, disk drives, other peripherals, and three redundant 300-watt power supplies (two are standard).

You can purchase a ProServa in just about any configuration you want. It maxes out at four Pentium Pro CPUs (two processors on two cards) and 1GB of Error-Correcting Code (ECC) RAM (sixteen 72-pin SIMM slots on one memory board).

The ProServa's 128-bit CPU-to-memory data path is a little narrow on a system of this class, considering that many vendors are moving from 32-bit SIMMs to 64-bit Dual Inline Memory Modules (DIMMs). You can see this performance difference reflected in the data we gathered on the Pentium Pro servers running SQL Server 6.5. However, the major advantage of SIMMs is that they are industry standard parts; they are inexpensive and easy to get.

The ProServa SH has 11 drive bays: three front-accessible 5.25" half-height bays (one for the standard 4X CD-ROM drive), one 3.5" third-height (for the floppy drive), and seven 3.5" half-height hot-swap bays with shuttles. External storage chassis are also available.

You get 10 I/O slots: six dedicated 32-bit PCI slots on a dual-peer bus and four dedicated EISA slots. Most of the I/O slots are available (depending on how many NICs you order, whether you have a RAID controller, etc.), because the SCSI and video interfaces are integrated on the motherboard.

The disk controller is a dual-peer, two-channel Adaptec 7870 Fast and Wide SCSI-2 device. A Cirrus Logic 5430 with 1MB of VRAM drives video, supports 800*600 pixel resolution at 65K colors or 1024*768 at 256 colors, more than you find standard on many other servers. My test system came with four 200MHz 512KB CPUs, 512MB of RAM, seven 2.1GB Fast and Wide drives, four Digital DE500 100Mbit Ethernet cards, and a Mylex 960DACP-2 two-channel RAID controller with 4MB of cache.

Enterprise Aware
Your server can't just be a pretty box. It has to stay up and running. NEC has taken big steps toward mission-critical reliability. The company offers a standard three-year onsite warranty; 24 X 7 technical phone support; and a host of fault-tolerance features, including redundant power supplies, hot-swap-capable drive bays (you will need a controller such as the Mylex to support this capability), and ECC memory. The machine has built-in temperature monitoring and options for remote server management for out-of-band access (you can dial in from your vacation in Waikiki to reboot the system).

I had a few problems with my initial configuration, but tech support was quick and responsive. They sent out a technician to update the BIOS and upgrade the system's CPUs from 256KB chips to the 512KB versions.

Performance Notes
With its new Intel-based systems, NEC is after the enterprise market just as the company was with RISC-based servers. In the ProServa, NEC has included performance, upgradeability, and serviceability features that enterprise servers need to function in the corporate-user space. These features include redundant power supplies, hot-swap disk drives, and support for redundant NICs.

The ProServa is priced lower than its competition. But NEC has sacrificed a modicum of performance to gain that advantage (which I describe in "Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 Scaleability," page 80).

The Mylex controller is a reliable, relatively inexpensive RAID solution. However, it is not the best performing one I've seen. In addition--as with any high-end server purchase--you need to consider your future user load before buying a system. You can save more than $2000 per CPU by getting the smaller 256KB Level 2 cache, but it will work for only one- and two-CPU configurations. If you think you will need to upgrade in the near future to support more users or heavy transaction types, buy the 512KB version. You can't upgrade the 256s to a quad-processor system (NEC won't sell it to you). You must replace your first two CPUs with the 512KB versions.

Also, a performance tip: Remember to keep your fast and frequent-use I/O devices, such as NICs and SCSI controllers, and your slow I/O devices on separate buses (you have two in the ProServa). This way, you can distribute the load on the I/O bus.

The only complaint I have about the ProServa is that getting into the box is difficult. You have to remove too many screws to get the front panel off if you need to add or remove cards (the hot-swap bays are easily accessible, however).

Even with the few negatives I noted, the ProServa SH is a worthwhile system to consider. It has a good price/performance point--thousands less than a comparably equipped Compaq--and useful enterprise-oriented features.

If you are looking for barn-burning performance, other systems on the market might suit your needs better. But you will pay for that speed and capacity gain.

I recommend this system for small to medium IS shops that need upgradeability and good midrange performance. If you need high-end scaling but like the history you've had with NEC, wait for its next generation of servers, which we'll review soon.

NEC ProServa SH
4 200MHz Pentium Pro CPUs
512KB Level 2 Cache
512MB of RAM
4X CD-ROM drive
Mylex 960DACP-2 RAID Controller
7 2.1GB Fast and Wide SCSI-2 drives
4 Digital Equipment DE500 100Mbit Ethernet cards

Price: $41,410 (street, as configured)