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Server Snapshots: Sun in the Real World

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted May 29, 2008


Stock research firm StockCharts.com recently replaced its IBM blades and implemented the Sun Blade Modular System. As a result, it was able to provide investment information faster and manage its infrastructure better.

To keep up with the market, StockCharts.com needed servers that were both powerful and nimble. Did the Sun Blade Modular System fit the bill?

"Our Sun Blade Server 8000 platform delivers more CPU power than our previous environment with fewer computers to configure and maintain, plus it has swappable hard drives," said Chip Anderson, president, StockCharts.com, based in Redmond, Wash.

The company provides investors with historical and real-time stock information that reflects market conditions. Its Web site enables online investors to view the dynamic interplay between markets, sectors and stocks. Its interactive charting tools, in particular, are extremely popular, as they help users become more informed investors.

StockCharts.com regularly creates 5 million charts per day for more than 18,000 clients. However, demand changes wildly hour by hour. One isolated event can send people flocking to the site to create customized charts in massive volume. Such spikes can soar way above the 5 million mark for a day, or several days at a time. As a result, the company's IT staff must be ready to handle unpredictable traffic spikes without causing delays.

The stock research firm had previously implemented two of the original IBM BladeCenter racks with 14 IBM 8677 blades in each chassis. Each one had two 3.0 GHz Intel Xeon CPUs with 2 GB of RAM and two 40 GB hard drives. However, Anderson reported problems with hard drive reliability and power consumption.

"The IBM blades that we bought had a very high rate of failure in their original hard drives — basically we had to replace all of them over the course of the first year," he said. "That was a particularly painful process because these blades have to be turned off and removed from the chassis in order to replace the drives."

In addition, StockCharts.com observed problems with excessive power and cooling.

"The old blades ate a lot of power and required a lot of cooling, so we had to do a data center upgrade," said Anderson.

This caused the company to run out of capacity on its 15 kW Symmetra UPS system by APC Corp (West Kingston, R.I.). On the cooling side, StockCharts.com used two APC portable A/C units in addition to air cooling from its building. However, temperatures would rise significantly overnight, especially after the second chassis of IBM blades was installed.

"We knew we couldn't add more blades until we added much more cooling," said Anderson.

Around that time, Anderson attended a VMware conference in Los Angeles where Sun, IBM and HP showed off their blading gear. After using that opportunity to compare the different production, he made the decision that the Sun platform best suited his needs.

The IT team worked with Sun partner Applied Computer Solutions (ACS) of Huntington Beach, Calif., to implement the Sun Blade Server 8000 platform with Sun Blade 8000 P chassis. The goals were to increase application speed to deliver charts faster to online subscribers, improve uptime and simplify hardware maintenance.

The Sun Blade 8000 Modular System features either AMD Opteron or Intel Xeon processor blades with high I/O throughput. StockCharts.com currently has 20 Sun X8420 Blades loaded into two 8000P chassis. Each blade has 8 GB of RAM and two 80 GB hard drives. These boxes can run three operating systems simultaneously.

The company chose blades that have four 2.8 GHz dual-core Opteron processors. According to Anderson, the expectation was that each Sun blade would be able to handle roughly the same load as two of the older IBM blades that use four single-core 3.0 GHz Xeons.

"When we load-tested things using our production Java charting application, we found that the Sun blade could handle roughly 40 percent more load than two of the IBM blades, which was a pleasant surprise," said Anderson. In our testing, we found that one IBM blade could handle a maximum of about 30 simultaneous requests. One Sun blade maxed out at about 100 simultaneous users."

This was part of an overall data center upgrade. StockCharts.com decided to retain its 28 IBM blades and add more Sun Blade 8000 units. The UPS system was switched to a 40 kW APC InfrastruXure unit. A new cooling system is driven by a 20-ton cold-water chiller system from ArctiChill (Newberry, S.C.).

StockChart.com initially loaded all its charting applications onto 10 Sun blades.

"Taking care of 10 blades for our primary application instead of 28 meant a lot less administration time," said Anderson

He summarized the gains as having more than double the speed and capacity of the previous blade servers, far fewer hardware failures and 65 percent fewer blades to administer. He has also ensured that IT could expand its charting capacity to meet future demand.

"So far the Sun blades have had much better uptime than the IBM blades, specifically with regard to hard drives," said Anderson. "In the first year of operation, we've only had to replace one hard drive, and it was easy to replace because of the hot swap capability."

The APC Infrastruxure UPS has also proved adequate to the task. Anderson took a look the other morning. Despite powering the two IBM chassis, two Sun chassis, 12 x 2U Dell servers, 6 x 1U Dell Servers, 8 HP switches and several monitoring boxes, only 17.9 kW of its 40 kW were being used.

Future Plans

Encouraged by results to date, the company continues to deploy Sun blades as traffic loads increase. Since beginning with 10 blades dedicated to the charting application a year ago, StockCharts is now up to 17 blades deployed in that capacity.

Moving forward, Anderson plans to upgrade these blades in the near future.

"Soon, we expect to start getting the quad-core version, the Sun Blade X8440, and will start replacing our current dual-core blades with quad-core models as traffic demands further increase," he said.

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