The V40z and V20z were innovative in their own rights, but much credit was due to Newisys, the company that designed and built many of the components in those servers. Today, however, the Aquarius (and Galaxy) servers are 100% Sun designed and manufactured. The server takes all of the better computing principles of Opteron, and combines them into a state of the art half depth 1U.

Sun is the first Tier 1 component manufacturer to produce a server based on NVIDIA's nForce4 Ultra, the quintessential Athlon 64 desktop chipset. Several server and workstation motherboards on the market today use the nForce4 Professional series chipsets, but without the need for 32 PCIe lanes, nForce4 Ultra works just fine and also cuts down on the cost. nForce4 also supports other features like legacy PCI, but the SunFire X2100 does not include any PCI interfaces. In fact, most of nForce4's features have been stripped out or disabled for the SunFire; specifically, PATA support, NVIDIA ActiveArmor and much of the USB support.

Aquarius is also unique in the fact that the server uses Socket 939 1xx Opterons. These new Socket 939 Opterons have only a single HyperTransport link as opposed to three, which keeps the cost of the chip down. The Socket 939 Opterons also features organic packaging, rather than the traditional ceramic packaging on Socket 940. A peripheral benefit of Socket 939 is that the CPU does not require expensive registered memory; off-the-shelf unbuffered ECC PC-3200 works just fine. The SunFire X2100 actually works just fine without ECC memory either, but with the cost of PC-3200 so cheap these days, why not? The Socket 939 Opterons are a little less picky with the memory configurations; mixing 1GB DIMMs with 512MB DIMMs is perfectly acceptable, but the DIMMs will have to be matched in order for the Opteron to enable dual channel mode.

NVIDIA's nForce4 controller forms the backbone of the Aquarius. There is only a single x8 PCIe lane, and a single HyperTransport lane from the MCP to the Socket. Only two of nForce4's SATA channels are utilized in the X2100, but from what we could tell in the BIOS, all RAID functionality still works. A single PCIe lane is dedicated to the Broadcom BCM 5721 controller giving the system two dedicated Gigabit Ethernet controllers (the other Gigabit Ethernet is located on the nForce4 chip).

Opening the Aquarius reveals even more interesting components. The first thing to notice is the all copper, fanless heat sink over the socket. Four 40mm brushless fans are responsible for pushing air across this heatsink through the rear of the system. Two more fans push air across the memory and PCIe expansion. Each of these six fans are controlled independently by the nForce4 chipset, but can also be adjusted via the IPMI interface. Our only suggestion would be to place the fan control interfaces out of the path of the cooling duct to increase airflow.

Sun's attention to detail scored a lot of points in previous analyses, particularly with regard to system management. The SunFire's X2100 system processor - a QLogic Zircon - sits on a dedicated System Management Daughter Card (SMDC). Initial samples of the Aquarius did not have SMDC boards installed on them, but we lucked out and received one of the first samples in the US with the controller.

Via the IPMI 1.5 protocol, we can remotely trigger any of following commands:
  • Power Up, Power Down
  • System Reset
  • System Power Cycle
  • System NMI
  • Request Message Redirection
Aside from remote control, the SMDC is also responsible for sensing inside the server. Voltage, temperature, fan speed and chassis intrusion are all monitored on the Zircon chip, which in turn then issues commands to the BIOS and core logic. The SMDC can be controlled from Sun's N1 System Manager, thus tying the functionality of each server on the network into a seamless "control plane". Through N1, a system manager can apply BIOS updates and OS patches without even taking the system down.

In true Sun fashion, the SunFire X2100 is hardly a quiet device. We measured the device in excess of 60dBA from twelve inches away during heavy operation, but since the majority of the X2100's life will be spent in a server room, that's not a problem. On the other hand, the Opteron 175 stayed under 50 degrees Celsius during normal operation according to our SMDC.

What is Aquarius? The Test
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  • allanw - Tuesday, September 13, 2005 - link

    The two hard drives can be set up for RAID 0, 1 or 0+1 via the BIOS.

    I don't get it. How do you do raid 0+1 with only two drives?
    Reply
  • Deinonych - Wednesday, September 14, 2005 - link

    You can't. RAID 0+1 requires a minimum of 4 drives. Reply
  • stephenbrooks - Tuesday, September 13, 2005 - link

    Darn. I could get two of these things for less than my current desktop PC cost. (Though without graphics card etc. of course!) Reply
  • Jmonk - Tuesday, September 13, 2005 - link

    I was stoked to read the article on the X2100 because I'm currently in the market for an entry-level small business server. Doing my homework I found that other name-brand, entry-level servers were obviously too expensive for their spec's. The Small X2100 base-model ($745, no HDD, 512MB DDR, no DVD) is priced right where I'm looking at, but the spec's are relatively weak considering that I can build an equivalent 1U server (slightly faster, Athlon 64) for $475, purchased from online retailers. If I were to move up a notch to the Medium X2100, I find myself completely out of my price range.
    So is the name-brand and the 3-year warranty worth $270 extra for a somewhat weaker machine? The often heard "save money, build it yourself" suggestion is a known misconception when it comes to desktop PC's, but I was surprised to see that it's completely feasible and worthwhile in regards to servers.
    Reply
  • Furen - Tuesday, September 13, 2005 - link

    If you know how to do build it, know how to configure it and dont mind having to deal with any incompatibilities and issues yourself then go for it and build it yourself, you will save quite a bit. Personally, I think this server is pretty well priced since it's pretested, pre-assembled, in a thermally-balanced case (not that thermals are too much of a problem with K8s right now) and a decent warranty. All possible incompatibilities have already been dealt with, it also has two nice hotswapable SATA bays, a half-height 8x PCI-E slot for possible expansion and comes preconfigured with Solaris 10 (which I like, though you may not). Reply
  • Jmonk - Wednesday, September 14, 2005 - link

    Actually, the Small X2100 doesn't come with a Solaris option without additional cost.
    But you're right that there is certainly an amount of confidence with the Sun servers that neither the admin nor the owner of the company may expect with a self-built machine.
    My main point is that desktop PC's are much more affordable than self-built - pre-testing, -assembling, -OS-loading and warranties just sweeten the deal. But why aren't servers to that point?
    Reply
  • Gholam - Tuesday, September 13, 2005 - link

    The board used is Tyan Tomcat K8E, with some components like PCI slots just not soldered in. Doesn't mean it's bad - I have a server running here on that one board and an A64 4400+, and it's an excellent machine - but c'mon, give credit where it's due :) Reply
  • Ahkorishaan - Monday, September 12, 2005 - link

    I would really like to see a price point comparison between a Sun AMD, a Dell Pentium, any IBM, and any HP. I bet it would look rather interesting. Sun is indeed coming to the fore again. Reply
  • MCSim - Tuesday, September 13, 2005 - link

    Check out the Sun's NC05Q3 webcast. They are making some comparisons there. Reply
  • Deinonych - Monday, September 12, 2005 - link

    It would have been nice to see how this server stacks up against comparable offerings from IBM, HP and Dell (even though Dell doesn't offer an AMD server). Comparing it to other Sun products is nice if you only buy Sun. Reply

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