Reviewed by Alan Zeichick
It's a whole new line of business, from a name (or a couple of names) that you'll surely remember. In 1996 the company was called Telenet Systems. It was renamed BSDi in 2000, and then in April 2001, it became iXsystems, Inc. What happened to the Berkeley Standard Distribution, you ask? Well, that's gone, sold to embedded software giant Wind River Systems, Inc. Today, the company is focused on building and selling custom low-profile, rackmounted servers, available with your choice of Linux, Windows or BSD (licensed back from Wind River). It's quite a change from the BSDi we used to know.
The new hardware product line consists of a range of Intel-based servers, ranging from an inexpensive 1U (that's one rack unit or 1.75" × 19") model with a single Celeron processor, to a 4U (7" high) system with four Intel processors. We recently reviewed a late prototype of their mid-range system, the iXtreme 1350, which is a 1U, dual-processor server optimized for maximum rack density in a web hosting facility or corporate data center, and given our initial skepticism about the OS-vendor-turned-box-builder, we were impressed with what we found.
The system we reviewed was equipped with dual 1GHz Pentium III processors, 1GB of RAM and three Seagate Cheetah 9.1GB Ultra3 SCSI hot-swappable hard drives. This is a common hardware configuration; all of the major server players, including Compaq, Dell, HP and IBM, also manufacture dual-processor 1U servers with essentially the same specifications; though Compaq ProLiant DL360 and IBM xSeries 330 models only have two internal hard drives instead of three.
iXsystems equipped the server with the other hardware that you'd expect in a product in this class: built-in CD-ROM and floppy drives, serial and parallel ports, onboard video, two USB ports (fairly worthless for a server, unless you want to hang a USB printer off it) and dual 10/100 Ethernet connections. No surprises there.
We were surprised, however, that iXsystems chose to give the iXtreme 1350 only a single 64-bit PCI expansion slot. In the case of our review system, that slot was already filled with an Adaptec 2100S SCSI RAID controller. That's a decent board, which has a single Ultra3 SCSI channel—more than adequate for the three onboard hard drives. The Adaptec board also has an external SCSI connector, so you could hook it up to an external storage box to bring the number of hard drives connected to the server up to a maximum of 15.
Why is this a problem? In a rackmounted environment, many IT professionals may choose to connect their high-density servers up to a storage area network (SAN). Today, that requires the use of a Fibre Channel network adaptor. Without an open PCI slot that's not an option for the iXsystems 1350. Increasingly, many network managers are also connecting their servers via Gigabit Ethernet, rather than 10/100 Ethernet. Our lab also has a gigabit backbone, and we usually put Asanté FriendlyNet GigaNIX or Intel Pro/1000 network cards into new servers and hook them into a gigabit copper switch. In fact, when both Fibre Channel SAN access and Gigabit Ethernet networking are required, and there's only one open slot, we use InterPhase's SlotOptimizer 5570, which has both connections on a single PCI card.
Thus, with the iXtreme 1350, you can have SCSI, Fibre Channel or Gigabit Ethernet—choose only one. Competing servers either have two PCI slots, or have one PCI slot but place the SCSI controller on the motherboard. (Note that iXsystems will sell you either the RAID adaptor or gigabit adaptor, but doesn't offer a Fibre Channel adaptor.)
One other complaint about the hardware: the box's cover and PCI adaptor are held in place with tiny 3/8" long Philips-head screws. The other server manufacturers have learned that in a high-density, rackmounted environment, screws are bad news. Depending on the angle you're working on, you can have trouble getting them out, drop them when trying to put them back or even have them fall inside a server. All of the major manufacturers use catches, buttons or thumbscrews to hold down the cover, so you can slide it off or swing it open without using any tools. They also use catches or latches to hold the PCI cards in place, again making it easier to swap them out while the server is still inside the rack.
By using screws, iXsystems saved some dollars on their design and manufacturing but have made the server more difficult to service in the field. If you purchase this model, our advice is that you remove the four screws holding down the cover before installing the server inside the rack. Unfortunately, you can't remove the screw holding the PCI slot together without making the board wobble, so you'll just have to live with that.
iXsystems offers this model server with your choice of Windows 2000, FreeBSD 4.2 or Red Hat Linux 7.1 pre-installed. (The company's spec sheet says that the server also can come with BSD/OS and Solaris, but the on-line configurator didn't present them as options.) Guess which one we chose?
Red Hat booted up just fine on the server and connected instantly to our LAN. It had all the open-source applications and goodies included with Red Hat's 7.1 Professional Server distribution; yes, I know that 7.2 has been out for a while, but 7.1 is what iXsystems offers. The software appeared to be competently installed, and it took little time to bring up Apache and put a web site on-line. We only had the review server for two weeks, but during that time, it ran the web site fine, handling traffic (50 simulated users, sent over by Rational Software Corp.'s SiteLoad software on another) without a hiccup or even a sneeze. It's a Linux server. What more can you say?
Out of the box, the iXtreme 1350 represents a good value and has the secondary benefit of being from a company that truly understands the Linux/UNIX universe. As equipped, the server carried a list price of $3,319 US, according to the company. That includes 90 days of e-mail/phone support for the operating system, and three years of what the company calls standard hardware support. That means, if the server breaks, you ship it to their depot, and they'll fix it and send it back. Or, if you can identify a broken part, they'll ship a replacement out to you.
The company really socks it to you, however, if you want more OS support—increasing the OS support to three years costs another $1,400. Their charges for on-site hardware support are more reasonable and are worth getting if the server is critical to your business: $450 US for three years of next-day or $770 US for three years of same-day support. So, a system with no extra OS support, but with next-day on-site support, would cost $3,769 US.
For comparison, we looked at two similar systems, each dual-processor 1U servers with Linux, RAID controller and three-year, next-day on-site support. The Dell PowerEdge 1550, with the same hardware except for three 18GB drives (Dell no longer sells 9GB drives), came through at $4,041 US. That's nearly a wash. The Compaq ProLiant DL360, with dual 9GB drives, was an astounding $7,461.
Based on hardware, software and pricing, we're impressed with the iXtreme 1350; the company has done a nice job, and we'd have no hesitation in deploying them or recommending them to clients, once they take the cover screws out. Perhaps iXsystems will have trouble living down their BSDi heritage and making the cultural transition from being an operating-system brand to an off-the-shelf server manufacturer, but in our opinion, they're off to a fine start.