Volume 3, Number 37 -- October 5, 2006

Bang for the Buck: Entry Unix Servers Compete with Linux and Windows

Published: October 5, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

It was only 15 years ago that Unix was first being commercialized, proprietary operating systems dominated the midrange of the server market, mainframes ruled the high end, and there was no such thing as an entry server, but rather a NetWare file system for file sharing and network printing. How the world has changed. Proprietary operating systems still have their niches--and they will for a long time to come--a formerly ascendant Unix has been pushed out of the entry server space by Windows and then Linux.

Make no mistake. Unix systems, mainframes, and even AS/400s (now known as the System i5 but rarely called that) are still dominant in the data centers of the largest companies in the world. They do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of batch jobs and transaction processing. But, then again, at many companies, Windows is used for new applications or has even supplanted Unix, and at others, Linux, because it is like Unix excepting its relatively high price, has ousted Unix. Unix platforms have been under assault for a number of years, but Unix vendors are starting to fight back, each in their own ways.

Doing any sort of comparison right now is a bit difficult, because a lot of the core server platforms are in flux right now. The changes underway only play into the hands of the Windows platform as X64 and Itanium servers are making their way to market offering more bang for the buck. Of course, what helps Windows on a server hardware platform usually also helps Linux, since they run on the same iron. But, because Hewlett-Packard supports HP-UX on the same Itanium iron as it supports Windows and Linux, because IBM supports AIX on the same Power iron that it supports Linux and OS/400 (now called i5/OS), and because Sun Microsystems is shipping Opteron machines that support Windows, Linux, and Solaris, the playing field for operating systems is, in some cases at least, more level that it has been in years. Unix has a fighting chance on many platforms.

So now, Intel has its dual-core "Woodcrest" Xeon 5100s and its dual-core "Montecito" Itanium 9000 processors out the door finally, and they are making their way into servers. AMD also has its "Santa Rosa" Rev F Opteron processors to market, and IBM is putting the finishing touches on its Power5+ rollout in the System p5 AIX server line (rejiggering some entry machines) and has the Power5+ chips inside its p5 590 and 595 big iron boxes.

The major server makers have put Woodcrest machines into the field. Sun has a reasonably broad "Galaxy" Opteron server line out, and HP, Unisys, NEC, and Fujistu-Siemens are doing the final testing on their Montecito boxes. Intel also has the dual-core "Tulsa" Xeon MP processors out--ahead of schedule, in fact--for four-socket and larger servers, in an effort to kick some wind out of AMD in the lucrative midrange and high-end X64 market.

While things are still moving around a bit, the server chips and platforms have stopped moving around so much. We can talk about how various platforms stack up against each other and the data won't be useless in a month or so.

Going through all of the various comparisons will take some time, of course, because the server market is getting a little more complex now that virtualization has entered the picture and Linux is a viable alternative to Unix, Windows, and i5/OS.

In this week's installment of the Bang for the Buck series in The Unix Guardian, I am starting out on the smallest boxes--those with one or two processor sockets. For entry Unix servers, I threw in two Hewlett-Packard Itanium boxes for comparison's sake. These are older HP machines, and I know this is not exactly a fair comparison. The rx2620-2 has been replaced with a new machine based on the "Titan" zx2 chipset, and the rx4640-2 server shown is really a lot bigger than the entry Windows and Linux boxes in terms of expandability.

I threw in the rx4640 because HP ran a test on this box using the new dual-core "Montecito" Itanium 9000 processors, and I wanted to show that even a single, dual-core chip was capable of doing a lot of work--and from the looks of things, almost as much work as IBM's new 2.1 GHz Power5+ chips for the p5 machines. The reason is, I do not have pricing for HP's smallest Integrity.

By the way, I did not create Unix boxes for the very smallest server comparisons. Unix just isn't prevalent down in this part of the market, just like Linux really isn't. If Linux on X64 is rare, you can bet that RISC/Unix is getting even more rare, particularly with Windows being the default platform for SMB customers these days.

For Windows machines, I went out to the HP site and configured Celeron D and Xeon 5100 machines. I put a Windows stack on these HP machines, and then a Linux stack. I even went so far as to make a light stack (using the cheapest Windows or Linux operating system, database, and hypervisor as I could) and a heavy stack (using the enterprise-class equivalents that most closely match the common Unix and i5/OS stacks). The light stack is what I think companies that buy baby servers will buy (the Windows #2 configuration in the tables I have built), while the heavier stack (which is the Windows #1 configuration) is the industrial-grade stuff with the most features and scalability. I then configured two Sun Galaxy boxes with Windows just to show you how aggressive Sun is these days--even with Windows.

Just to show how legacy customers do not get the same kind of pricing, I also threw the System i5 machines, which are the i5 Value Edition and the various pre-configured Express Editions, into the mix.

The Metrics of Comparison

As is my typical practice, I have created a table outlining the feeds, speeds, and pricing of the entry servers compared in this installment of the Bang for the Buck series. The machines in the table have the hardware features shown. I have tried to keep the configurations across server architectures and operating system platforms as similar as is practical based on the natures of the product lines.

I am well aware that I am showing the estimated or actual OLTP performance of a given processor complex and comparing the cost of a base configuration. In this way, I am trying to isolate the base cost of a server and show its potential performance on the TPC-C online transaction processing benchmark. Yes, the Transaction Processing Performance Council frowns on this sort of thing. But, someone has to do like-for-like comparisons and the TPPC can't even get its own acronym straight, much less come up with a scheme that not only encourages, but makes vendors adhere to a wider spectrum of tests to gauge the performance of product lines rather than one iteration of a product. (And, while I am thinking about it, don't bother emailing me about how an acronym has to be pronounceable or it is just an abbreviation; the usage of the word "acronym" has changed to mean any abbreviation, and IT Jungle is on the cutting edge of word technology.)

For the comparisons, I have put a RAID 5 disk controller on each machine, two 36 GB disks, and 2 GB of main memory for each processor core in the box (there are some exceptions on the core count, of course. Each server also has a basic tape backup, shown in the table.

In terms of the software stack on these basic servers, I have added an operating system and a relational database management system, and unlike in past years, I have thrown in virtual machine or logical partitioning hypervisors, since I think people are going to start using these in production. IBM's AS/400, iSeries, and i5 servers have had such software embedded for years, and to make it a fair comparison, this functionality should be added to X64 servers as well.

For the heavy configurations of the Windows and Linux machines in the table, I added in VMware's top-of-the-line ESX Server 3 with all of the bells and whistles. And for the cheapo configurations, the Windows boxes have Microsoft's freebie Virtual Server 2005, while the Linux machines, which are configured with Novell's just announced SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10, have the integrated and free Xen 3 hypervisor from XenSource. I put SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition or Standard Edition on the Windows machines, and Oracle Standard Edition One on the Linux boxes. The Unix boxes running HP-UX use HP's own Virtual Server Environment partitioning, the IBM p5 boxes use the Virtualization Engine hypervisor also used with the i5, and the Sun boxes use Solaris containers. I know that the latter is not as sophisticated as some of the other hypervisors--since containers have a shared Solaris kernel and file system underneath virtual machines--but if you want, you can put VMware ESX Server 3 on the Opteron boxes. In some cases, this will make a big, big difference in the price/performance of a Solaris-Opteron box. ESX Server does not run on the Sparc T1 "Niagara" servers.

The i5 520 Value, Entry, Standard, and Enterprise configurations illustrate that IBM has a different way of packaging and pricing its proprietary midrange products. IBM includes the operating system (with unlimited access) and an integrated database management system with the base hardware. If you want to use the legacy 5250 green-screen protocol to support applications, you have to pick a machine with this enabled, and that capability (which is typically embodied in the Enterprise Edition machines) is very pricey.

None of the configurations have any hardware or software support costs. Pricing is just for hardware acquisition and basic installation support. Obviously, getting break-fix maintenance and real software support costs money. But that is a subject for a different day.

How Entry Unix Boxes Measure Up

The OLTP performance of the Celeron D processor (which oddly has only one core even though it has a D in its name, which just goes to show that Intel is, in many ways, losing it) is based on a wild guess on my part, since no one has done TPC-C performance measurements on this machine. That's why I marked it in red. I am more confident of the estimates for performance I made on the Woodcrest servers, since there have been some tests. Be careful if you think the Opteron machines I show can whoop the Woodcrests. The 1.86 GHz Woodcrest chip, technically known as the Xeon 5120, is not the fastest part; the Xeon 5160 ramps up to 3 GHz and can do about 60 percent more work.

Here's another thing to notice. I cannot find enough benchmark data to prove this, but as best as I can figure, there are no substantial performance or scalability differences on entry or midrange machines running either Linux or Windows when it comes to database performance. There is so little data that I can't really prove it one way or the other, to be honest. So I have assumed they are the same, just as Windows and Unix on larger iron (where the two are run side-by-side, such as on Itanium iron) do not seem to show more than a few percent of wiggling on performance.

Linux and the cheaper Windows stack are about the same cost (which is no accident, but the way Microsoft is being aggressive), as the table shows, and if you really want to save money, you move to Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 and use the integrated Xen hypervisor, which drops the bang for the buck down to 14 cents per TPM on the larger configuration--the one where the i5 Standard Edition costs 84 cents per TPM. That is better price/performance by a factor of six.

If you want Unix and you like Sun's Galaxy Opteron servers, Solaris 10 plus Oracle 10g Standard Edition One costs about the same as the SLES 10-Xen stack running the same database. IBM's new Power5+ p5 510+ Express and 520+ Express servers cost 21 cents and 23 cents per TPM, respectively, with an AIX stack, Virtualization Engine Hypervisor, and Oracle 10g SEO. And for all the talk about how great the "Niagara" Sparc T1 multithreaded, multicored processors are, these machines offer comparable performance to an i5 520, but cost around 45 cents per TPM when configured up. (I am guessing the performance of the Niagara boxes based on other benchmarks, since Sun is too stubborn to run the TPC-C tests on its Galaxy and Niagara even though it has great numbers. Go figure.)

The interesting thing to me is how aggressive Sun is with its pricing on the Galaxy machines. As best I can figure, the Sun Galaxy machines are offering very good bang for the buck, and I suspect the HP ProLiant line with Opterons and indeed anyone else's Opteron machines would show similar bang for the buck. There is a reason why AMD has Intel freaked out, after all. Having said that, the Galaxy X2100 machine has no expandability, and is not really appropriate except for very small workloads. Also, the Galaxy X4200 server I configured has a single-core Opteron 248 processor, which is the slowest chips I could put in the box that Sun currently sells. While the performance and price/performance of these machines are great, there is no more room to put any storage in the box in either case. And that is not a good server for running databases and applications.

Sun should have offered Galaxy tower configurations with more memory and disk expansion if it wanted to sell into the SMB space. These rack-mounted Galaxy machines are really aimed at infrastructure, supercomputing, clustered database, and n-tier application serving. They are not--even with VMware, Virtual Server, or Xen hypervisors that would allow workloads to be mixed on the machines--designed to support databases and applications simultaneously because they do not have enough room to add storage (just like the DL320 from HP is too skinny, too). Having said that, if you want to add external arrays and get a baby rack for these HP and Sun machines, you could build a pretty powerful setup.

Now, even though Windows is very aggressively priced, AIX, Solaris, and HP-UX platforms are not exactly slouches. While entry Integrity rx Series servers using Itanium 2 processors were a bit pricey--and still are--moving to the new dual-core Montecito chips should put them in the same league with entry Windows and Linux boxes--even the cheaper Windows stacks. Galaxy machines running Solaris are already offering similar or better bang for the buck as the cheaper Windows stack, and even though Sun is charging a premium for servers using Solaris on its "Niagara" Sparc T1 processors, the price/performance on OLTP workloads (as best as I can estimate) is absolutely within the realm of reason for the T1000 and T2000 servers. And, as has been the case for years, IBM's pricing on the System p5 machine--even entry boxes--is very aggressive and absolutely competitive with Linux on X64 servers and better than Windows on X64 boxes.

The Wintel and Lintel suppliers are offering much better bang for the buck than IBM's proprietary i5 line, and even Solaris and AIX Unix boxes are more aggressively priced. Wintel and Lintel boxes that now have many of the same virtualization and database features and that offer compelling value and performance. Even loading up the most expensive Windows stack--Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition and SQL Server 2005 Enterprise Edition--with the very pricey VMware ESX Server hypervisor results in a machine that costs 62 cents per TPM using a very modest dual-core 1.86 GHz "Woodcrest" Xeon 5120 processor. Switching to the faster 3 GHz Xeon 5160 Woodcrest chip and putting two processors in the box instead of one more than triples the performance of Intel machine, but only increases the cost of the box by 60 percent because the software pricing doesn't change. So the bang for the buck on this larger Woodcrest box is a stunning 29 cents per TPM.

Moving to a cheaper Windows stack--Windows Small Business Server 2003 and SQL Server Workgroup Edition--cuts the price of the same systems roughly by half. Moving to a Sun Galaxy Opteron-based server running the Windows stack doesn't change the pricing at all. Woodcrest machines pretty much match the current Rev E Opteron machines. The Rev F Opterons, which are just now getting into machines and do not have a lot of performance data, will boost the performance of the Opteron platforms some and improve the price/performance some. But I don't expect anything earth shattering until quad-core Opterons come out next year.

If HP needs to do anything to be competitive, it is this: get pricing information on its entry Integrity boxes running HP-UX back on the Web, and get TPC-C and other benchmarks out the door to demonstrate that HP-UX is price competitive with Windows and Linux. I think it is, but it is more of a hunch than an assertion based on hard data.

To sum it all up, Unix, Windows, and Linux platforms are aggressively fighting it out in the entry server space. It is getting tougher to differentiate on features; there is pressure not to compete based on price; and that means vendors are playing to their installed bases.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik,
Shannon O'Donnell, Timothy Prickett Morgan
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Thomas
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