Cluster Hardware Torture Tests

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

Without stable hardware, any program will fail. The frustration and expense of supporting bad hardware can drain an organization, delay progress and frustrate everyone involved. At Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), we have created a testing method that helps our group, SLAC Computer Services (SCS), weed out potentially bad hardware and purchase the best hardware at the best possible cost. Commodity hardware changes often, so new evaluations happen each time we purchase systems. We do minor re-evaluations for revised systems for our clusters about twice a year. This general framework helps SCS perform accurate, efficient evaluations.

This article outlines our computer testing methods and system acceptance criteria. We expanded our basic ideas to other evaluations, such as storage. The methods outlined here help us choose hardware that is much more stable and supportable than our previous purchases. We have found that commodity hardware ranges in quality, so systematic methods and tools for hardware evaluation are necessary. This article is based on one instance of a hardware purchase, but the guidelines apply to the general problem of purchasing commodity computer systems for production computational work.

Defining System Requirements

Maintaining system homogeneity in a growing cluster environment is difficult, as the hardware available to build systems changes often. This has the negative effect of adding complexity in management, software support for new hardware and system stability. Furthermore, introducing new hardware can introduce new hardware bugs. To constrain change and efficiently manage our systems, SCS developed a number of tools and requirements to enable an easy fit for new hardware into our management and computing framework. We reduced the features to the minimum that would fit our management infrastructure and still produce valid results with our code. This is our list of requirements:

  • One rack unit (1U) case with mounting rails for a 19" rack.

  • At least two Intel Pentium III CPUs at 1GHz or greater.

  • At least 1GB of ECC memory for every two CPUs.

  • 100MB Ethernet interface with PXE support on the network card and in the BIOS.

  • Serial console support with BIOS-level access support.

  • One 9GB or larger system disk, 7,200 RPM or greater.

  • All systems must be FCC- and UL-compliant.

Developing a requirements list was one of the first steps of our hardware evaluation project. Listing only must-haves as opposed to nice-to-haves grounded the group. It also slowed feature creep, useless additions to hardware and vendor-specific methods for doing a task. This simple requirement culled the field of possible vendors and reduced the tendency to add complexity where none was needed. Through this simple list, we chose 11 vendors to participate in our test/bid process. A few vendors proposed more than one model, so a total of 13 models were evaluated.

Starting Our System Testing

The 11 vendors we chose ranged from large system builders to small screwdriver shops. The two criteria for participating in the evaluation were to meet the list of basic requirements and send three systems for testing. We wanted the test systems for 90 days. In many cases, we did not need the systems that long, but it's good to have the time to investigate the hardware thoroughly.

For each system evaluation, two of the three systems were racked, and the third was placed on a table for visual inspection and testing. The systems on the tables had their lids removed and were photographed digitally. Later, the tabled systems were used for the power and cooling tests and the visual inspection. The other two systems were integrated into a rack in the same manner as all our clustered systems, but they did not join the pool of production systems. Some systems had unique physical sizing and racking restrictions that prevented us from using them.

Each model of system had a score sheet. The score sheets were posted on our working group's Web page. Each problem was noted on the Web site, and we tried to contact the vendor to resolve any issues. In this way we tested both the system and the vendor's willingness to work with us and fix problems.

We had a variety of experiences with all the systems evaluated. Some vendors simply shipped us another model, and some worked through the problem with us. Others responded that it was not a problem, and one or two ignored us. This quickly narrowed the systems that we considered manageable.

Throughout the period of testing, if a system was not completing a specific task, it was running hardware testing scripts or run-in scripts. Each system did run-in for at least 30 days. No vendor does run-in for more than 72 hours, and this allowed us to see failures over the long term. Other labs reported they also saw problems over long testing cycles.

In general, we wanted to evaluate a number of aspects of all the systems: the quality of physical engineering, operation, stability and system performance. Finally, we evaluated each vendor's contract, support and responsiveness.