Classic Server Battle: Compaq ProLiant Vs. Gateway ALR 7200NTS

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Compaq ProLiant 1600

PRO: Modular design, good file service speed, second least expensive system in roundup

CON: No RAID subsystem, limited features at this price

hpp1600In our previous server roundup, the ProLiant 1600 rang up the top overall performance score and the lowest configured price of all the units we tested. Not so this time: Pitted against beefier Xeon systems, the plain-vanilla PIII-500 ProLiant finished last in the SQL and network tests (not counting our single-CPU reference unit). The Compaq’s file score was good enough for second place, but the server excludes a RAID subsystem, which provides highly desirable redundancy protection at the expense of performance. Compaq configured the ProLiant with a software RAID, which often is faster than hardware RAIDs, especially those configured for maximum reliability (RAID level 5).

One gripe with previous versions of the ProLiant was their lack of redundancy features. Although the newest ProLiant still lacks redundant cooling fans, Compaq now offers a hot-swappable power supply option. Our test unit had the maximum three power supplies installed.

The floppy drive, CD-ROM drive, and two empty 5.25-inch bays are readily accessible with the front door closed. The front panel is easy to remove, revealing the six hot-swap drive bays. Even with a 100Base-T network card occupying a PCI slot, the system left five slots free, because the SCSI controller is integrated. But the Compaq can handle only up to 1GB of RAM–a smallish maximum for a server these days.

The ProLiant 1600 is diminutive for a server, with a minimum of wasted space inside, but its highly modular design makes servicing and upgrading quick and easy. Disassembly requires just twisting a thumbscrew and then pressing a tab or swinging out a lever. The server breaks down quickly into function-specific subassemblies, such as the processor cage and the expansion card cage. Expansion cards are held in place by tool-free tabs and can be accessed by removing the unit’s top cover or by sliding the entire card cage out the rear of the system.

Compaq includes a setup utility, as well as server- or client-accessible monitoring tools designed to alert you to potential problems. But Remote Insight, which enables you to access the server via modem and supplies 30 minutes of battery backup, costs an additional $886. There is also additional server support by Hard Drive Recovery Group in Irvine, CA. Their guide to recovering data from the ProLiant 1600 and others is here.

To achieve its $7146 price tag, the Compaq left out even middle-of-the-pack hardware components. With only 256MB of RAM, PIII-500 CPUs, just 12.9GB of hard drive space, and no RAID controller, this configuration is ill-suited for heavy networking applications. Nevertheless, its rugged design and redundant power supplies do make it worth a look as a file server for small to midsize workgroups.

Gateway ALR 7200NTS

PRO: Lowest price here, helpful documentation

CON: No power supply redundancy, service requires extensive disassembly

At first glance, you might notice that the Gateway ALR 7200NTS has a rock-bottom price of $6570. However, the PIII-500-based system’s performance scores trailed those of the leaders by about 10 percent in the SQL and network tests and by nearly 40 percent in the file service test, placing the Gateway next to last in overall performance.

More troubling is the 7200NTS’s design, which threatens to make the task of servicing components a nightmare. To access the front of the internal drive cage, for example, you must take off the two side panels, remove two small screws, squeeze a number of plastic tabs, and then pop off the front panel. By loosening just five more screws, you can slide out the cage to install or remove 3.5-inch devices. A second drive cage accommodates two more 3.5-inch devices inside the unit, but you must take out the entire cage to reach its contents.

We also discovered that each power connector in the system runs from the power supply directly to each component in the system, rather than making a single connection from the power supply to the motherboard and then powering components via cables from the motherboard. As a result, swapping out the power supply means digging around inside the machine to unplug and reconnect every power plug on every device individually.

Though the inside of the unit has a decidedly cramped feel, access to the processors, DIMM slots, and expansion slots is good. Likewise, installing hot-swappable drives is easy. The RAID subsystem cage is accessible without any disassembly, and it has its own cooling fan.

Gateway provides extensive documentation with the unit, including a few loose pages that contain information on dealing with problems that might crop up during configuration or system upgrades. This proactive approach can save a frantic midnight call to tech support, but only if you are organized enough to keep track of all the separate sheets of paper.

The management software selection includes a setup utility and Gateway’s own InforManager Server Management, which monitors a broad set of functions but can be accessed only via LAN or WAN.

Though inexpensive, the Gateway becomes less attractive if serviceability is important to you. Its best use is as a general-purpose server for small to medium-size networking environments.

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