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By | Mark Whitehorn 19th March 2008 06:02

Windows hardware challenge draws on resources

Things get heavy

Project Watch: Microsoft 2008 Here's a question for you: what hardware does it take to run an entirely new, pre-release Windows operating system and 1TB-worth of SQL Server 2008 community technology preview?

This question seems simple to answer, but the challenge comes in locating the requisite hardware. One problem that always arises when using any beta operating system is: no hardware manufacturer will certify kit to run the new operating system before that operating system has reached its release code form, because last minute changes may interfere with the certification process.

But, while full certification is often a problem, behind the scenes, the hardware manufacturers are working closely with the operating system provider and often know what servers are going to be certified when the time comes.

How willing they are to impart this information varies between companies. The trick comes in tapping the right OEM: I didn't find IBM particularly obliging but Dell, on the other hand, was extremely helpful. So, we have a Dell.

The big question in these scenarios then usually becomes one of whether to go with a 32-bit or 64-bit architecture. Given the size of our data files the only answer was the latter. So we settled on a 64-bit Dell PowerEdge R900 with four, quad-core Intel Xeon processors running at 2.93GHz. That is essentially 16 64 bit processors. For RAM we settled on 32Gb and the disk space. To quote Rolls-Royce on the power output of its motor vehicles, our output was "sufficient".

The PowerEdge is a ferociously noisy beast with multiple fans. It's also a heavy one. Having shifted the machine around the building several times I was moved to bring in a set of bathroom scales and on discovering that it weighed six and a half stone I decided it wasn't shifting again.

We haven't done any benchmarking for speed as yet but it's very quick. At tick-over Windows 2008 Server uses 2Gb RAM and it's coping admirably with the load put upon it.

The setup has been running for about ten weeks as I write. It has shown the fabulous reliability that any modern server should. As I said in the last Project Watch about the software stack, short of making up some drama, there's nothing to report.

Despite this, though, it is still apparent that we are working with beta software. For instance, some queries run as fast as we would expect on a box with 16 64-bit CPUs but others, whilst quick, are slower than we'd predicted. Another example is the result of Microsoft's stated policy of only incorporating into a CTP features that are reasonably robust.

I approve of this approach but it does mean some of the features we wanted were missing from the SQL Server 2008 CTP version five we'd been using. CTP six does, though, contain the online data compression and the backup compression we want to play with (sorry, test for deployment).

We've been using Remote Desktop for connecting to the server and it works very well. The few gripes I have about the hardware/software are both connected with the display. One is an irritation rather than a major issue: the use of ClearType fonts has to be set up every time a remote connection is made to the server. I gather this has been fixed for Windows Vista; we are, however, running Windows XP.

Another gripe: you and I know why servers don’t come with high-performance video cards but I do wish manufacturers wouldn’t use such dismal ones that make it painful to work at the server (which one has to do occasionally, during installations, for example).

In an attempt to alleviate the problem, we dropped in a reasonable card (a Matrox Millennium G550) only to discover that the driver install program didn’t recognize the operating system. I insisted that what it could see was really Windows Vista but it wasn’t fooled. It’s sad, really, that we end up trying to lie to the install software just to get a result.

Another, slightly painful area, is caused by Microsoft clearly taking security in Windows 2008 very, very seriously. For production this is an excellent thing - no question. But in development it's a pain because every thing useful is turned off by default so every feature we want to use has to actively be turned on with the correct permissions.

I'm a database geek so it's not pain I have to suffer directly, but the operating system guys have had fun locating all the relevant settings and turning them to "on'". It would be useful to have one switch that turns all the security off (after you've provided a note from your mother allowing you to do so).

Next up, installation of the software itself.®

Follow Register Developer regular Mark Whitehorn next time on Project Watch: Microsoft 2008 as he continues to roll out a spanking-new 1TB database for several thousand users on Microsoft's SQL Server 2008, Visual Studio 2008 and Windows Server 2008.

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