Cluster Hardware Torture Tests

Designing a thorough hardware test plan now can save you time, money and machine room wiring later.
Physical Inspection

The systems placed on the table were evaluated based on several criteria: quality of construction, physical design, accessibility, quality of power supply and cooling design. To start, the systems varied greatly in quality of construction. We found bent-over, jammed ribbon cables, blocked airflow, flexible cases and cheap, multiscrew access points that were unbelievably bad for a professional product. We found poor design decisions, including a power switch offset in the back of a system that was nearly inaccessible once the system was racked. On the positive side, we came across a few well-engineered systems.

Our evaluation included quality of airflow and cooling, rackability, size/weight and system layout. Features such as drive bays at the front also would be noted. Airflow is a big problem with hot x86 CPUs, especially in restricted spaces such as a 1U-rack system. Some systems had blocked airflow or little to no circulation. Heat can cause instability in systems and reduce operational lifetimes, so good airflow is critical.

Rigidity of the case, no sharp edges, how the system fits together and cabling also belong in this category. These might seem small, uninteresting factors until you get cut by a system case or have a large percentage of “dead on arrivals”, because the systems were mishandled by the shipper and the cases were too weak to take the abuse. We have to use these systems for a number of years; a simple yet glaring problem is a pain and potentially expensive to maintain.

Tool-less access should be a standard on all clustered systems. When you have thousands of systems, you are always servicing some of them. To keep the cost of that service low, parts should be quickly and easily replaceable. Unscrewing and screwing six to eight tiny machine screws slows down access to the hardware. Parts that fit so one part does not have to come out to get to another part and that provide easy access to drives are pluses. Some features we did not ask for, like keyboard and monitor connections on the front of the case, are fine but not really necessary.

We tested the quality of the power supply using a Dranetz-BMI Power Quality Analyzer (see Sidebar). Power correction often is noted in the literature for a system, but we have seen radically different measurements relative to the published number. For example, one power supply, with a published power factor correction of .96, actually had a .49 correction. This can have terrible consequences when multiplied by 512 systems. We tested the systems at idle and under heavy load. The range of quality was dramatic and an important factor in choosing a manageable system.

The physical inspection, features, cooling and power-supply quality tests weeded out a number of systems early in the process. Eliminating these right away reduced the number of systems that needed extensive testing, thereby reducing the amount of time spent on testing overall. System engineering, design and quality of parts ranged broadly.

Testing with Software

Run-in (often called burn-in) is the process manufacturers use to stress test systems to find faulty hardware before they put them in the field. A number of open-source run-in programs are available. One common program is the Cerberus Test Control System sourceforge.net/projects/va-ctcs. It is a series of tests and configurable wrapper scripts originally designed for VA Linux Systems' manufacturing. Cerberus is ideal for run-in tests, but we also developed specific tests based on our knowledge of system faults. We were successful in crashing systems with our scripts more often than when using a more general tool. Testing by using programs developed from system work experience can be more effective than using Cerberus alone, so consider creating a repository of testing tools.

Read the instructions carefully, and understand that run-in programs can damage a system; you assume the risk by running Cerberus. Also, there are a number of software knobs to turn, so consider what you are doing before you launch the program. But if you are going to build a cluster, you need to test system stability, and run-in scripts are designed to test exactly that quality.

At the time that we were testing systems, two members of our group wrote their own run-in scripts, based on some of the problems we have seen in our production systems. Whereas benchmarks try to measure system performance and often have sophisticated methods, run-in scripts are simple processes. A system is put under load and either passes or fails. A failure crashes the system or reports an error; a pass often does not report information. We also ran production code, which uncovered more problems. Production code always should be run whenever possible. For instance, one of the systems that passed the initial design inspection tests with flying colors failed under heavy load.

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