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Sun Fire V40z Server

High-powered Linux Server

With their Sun Fire V40z Server, Sun is moving into new realms in three different ways. First, it's a move onto a new hardware platform - namely the AMD Opteron CPU. Second, it's a move into the 64-bit arena on a platform other than their familiar UltraSPARC environment. Third is the adoption of a mainstream Linux distribution as a primary operating system choice.

We tested a V40z with four Opteron 848 processors, each with 2GB (total of 8GB) and two 73GB Ultra320 SCSI drives.

Designed for the Data Center

The V40z is definitely designed for the data center. With 12 internal fans, the machine is far too noisy to sit anywhere but in a dedicated server room. The airflow is specially designed to suck in air from the front and expel it out of the rear of the machine and the force is strong enough, even in the fully packed review unit, for you to feel a noticeable suction at the front of the unit.

The overall package is just 3U high, but it requires a full-depth rack (28.5in/724mm) to accommodate the unit. The LCD and button cluster on the front panel provide you with an interface to the Service Processor (SP) unit (see below) and indicators for the status of the V40z itself. Since it can be difficult to identify which front panel corresponds to which rear panel, there is also a useful "locate" button on both front and back panels that lights up LEDs at both ends, making identification easier.

Finally, a front-panel mounted USB port enables you to plug in a keyboard, mouse, or other USB device without having to reach around to the back of the machine.


The chassis itself provides for two redundant and hot-swappable power supplies, hot-swappable CPU, system and power supply fans, and six hot-swappable drive bays, all accessible from the front panel.

The V40z is based around the AMD Opteron 8xx series of CPUs; our unit came with four 848 CPUs, running at 2.2GHz. Through the embedded DDR memory controllers, these are connected to up to 8GB of RAM each, or 32GB in total, running at a bandwidth of 5.3GB/sec (using DDR333/PC2700). Although the memory is controlled independently by each CPU, the full 32GB is available to the system in a single chunk, made all the more practical by the 64-bit architecture of the AMD Opteron CPUs.

Although the system was designed from the ground up as a 64-bit platform, this doesn't preclude the use of 32-bit applications. The Opteron platform is backward compatible with 32-bit applications, but for best performance you'll need to use 64-bit versions.

Round the back, the system provides two independent Gigabit Ethernet ports, along with a PS/2-style keyboard and mouse, serial, USB, and VGA video ports. The VGA support is provided through an XGI Blade 3D graphics adaptor, which means you could use this as an exceedingly capable workstation.

There are six drive bays, one of which supports either a DVD-ROM/Floppy combo or a hard drive. These bays are hot-swappable and a clever lever mechanism makes it easy to release and insert drives from and into the case. The DVD-ROM is supported through an embedded IDE controller. Meanwhile, the built-in Ultra320 SCSI RAID controller (using an LSI chipset) provides connectivity for the main drive bays.

Seven PCI-X slots provide additional expansion options for the machine. Four of these run at 133MHz and two run at 100MHz (one of which is half-length); the remaining one is of the 66MHz, half-length variety. This last slot (actually Slot 1) is horizontal and is situated underneath the power supply cage (which means removing the power supplies and the cage to get to it); the other slots are vertical and situated next to the PSU cage.

A slightly odd design move has Slot 1 sharing bus resources with the embedded SCSI and Gigabit Ethernet controllers. This is fine until you insert a 33MHz card into the slot, at which point the overall bandwidth reduction may start to become a problem. Sun recommends that you don't use this slot if the performance of these components is an issue, but this begs the question of why the slot is there at all.

Internally, the PCI-X bus, other peripherals, and the CPUs communicate with each other over the HyperTransport bus, providing an aggregate bandwidth of 6.4GB/sec. Note that there are direct interconnects between individual CPUs, as opposed to the shared interconnects used in an SMP Xeon system. Using HyperTransport, the entire system benefits from having very few potential bottlenecks, from the memory all the way through to the drives and PCI-X slots. The PCI-X slots are also hot-pluggable; I was unable to test this, however, having no suitable PCI cards to try.

Throughout, the case and components have been designed so that all hardware configuration can be completed without the need for a screwdriver or any other tool; every component clicks (remarkably well in most cases) into place. Even the CPU boards and PCI-X slots employ this tool-less access. Furthermore, the daughterboard holding the two primary CPUs can be accessed and removed from the front panel without even moving the machine from the rackmount enclosure.

Through a combination of this modular design and the Service Processor (see later in this article), it's possible to get to the machine, shut it down safely through the LCD panel, and reconfigure the hardware with nothing more than the clothes you were wearing when you came in.

This is both impressive and disconcerting, as the ease of access somehow makes the system seem less than robust. That is, however, only until you start using the system. The whole unit feels incredibly solid and there are nice additional touches, such as the easy-carry handles on the side (available even when rails are fitted) and levers and catches that both release and lock components into place. For additional security, some components come with simple but effective ties and locks that prevent you from accidentally removing the power supplies. You can even screw down the lever that opens and locks the case lid into place.

Service Processor

It's fair to say that a key feature of the V40z is availability. There are two elements that contribute to this: the Service Processor (SP) and the hardware design.

The Service Processor is a minicomputer (based on a PowerPC CPU and running an embedded version of Linux), built into the V40z and smaller V20z systems, that allows complete out-of-band management of the machine, including booting, rebooting, and certain configuration elements. These can all be controlled either through an LCD on the front of the system case, through a keyboard/monitor connected to the machine, or through an independent network management port that enables you to connect to the machine through SSH.

The SP unit is a completely separate component of the system that runs using the standby voltage of the power supplies, so it's available even if the main server is switched off. Also, because it's independent, the SP is available even if the main system has crashed. The SP even controls the power supply to the rest of the system; in the event of a crash, we can use the SP to cycle the power remotely, just as easily as pushing the reset button on the front of any other box.

The SP controls the hardware so tightly and independently that when you first connect power to the system it is only the SP component that is available. To boot the main CPUs, you must then separately tell the SP to start the actual V40z server.

The SP directly supports four interfaces for management, through an attached keyboard, using the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPMI) over the SP's network port, using SNMP (see the System Monitoring section later in this article), and with a command line interface through SSH to the Service Processor component.

Through the various administration interfaces, it is possible to use the Service Processor to boot the system over a network and to install an operating system directly. The IPMI standard allows for operations to be scriptable, so it's possible to use the lights-out management (LOM) facilities to install and configure multiple V20z and V40z servers, according to your needs.

There are two external SP network ports (10/100Mbps), but the system is actually configured internally as a small, three-port switch, with one of the ports being internal only and connected to the SP component. By providing the connectivity to the SP in this way, you can daisy chain multiple V40z (and the smaller V20z) units together and connect them to a single network port on your Ethernet switch, significantly reducing the number of ports required to manage a large V40z network. The SP can either be self-configuring (through DHCP) or you can set the IP address manually (through the front-panel LCD).

The Service Processor controls the main components of the hardware chassis (including the power supply) and is responsible for environmental controls (such as the internal fans and temperature monitoring) and for altering administrators of faults in the system. Management can be either be through the SSH system, through a simple command line interface, or through a special management utility called ipmitool.

The SP is an incredibly effective way of managing your V40z server. To give a classic example, the SPmakes it possible to perform remote operations, including physically powering off the machine and powering it back on again without ever going near it.

System Monitoring and Management

You can also monitor the system with the Service Processor, which provides status information and event logs through the IPMI interface. A separate utility, IPMItool, provides a command line interface to the IPMI system (both remotely and locally), enabling you to manage and monitor the system from the command line. The IPMItool also provides the scripting functionality mentioned earlier for multiple installations.

Alternatively, you can use your existing SNMP toolsets to monitor the system. SNMP is made available over both the main gigabit ports and the SP network port, through an SNMP proxy. This means that you can monitor and manage the machine over both the main and management networks, depending on your own network location.

Operating System Support

The V40z supports a wide array of operating system choices, including SuSe Enterprise Linux or Solaris x86 in standard configurations. Because the AMD64 platform used is relatively standard, any x86_64 Linux distribution should work fine. I was able to install Fedora Core 3 x86_64 without any problems at all. I also tried the latest beta of Solaris 10 x86.


It should go without saying, considering the architecture, CPU, RAM, and disk configuration, that this is a fast machine. It is tempting to quote Floating Point Operations Per Seconds (FLOPS) and similar, relatively meaningless benchmarks. However, I think it's easier to quote the speed of the machine in units we, as Linux users and developers, are more familiar with. These are equally arbitrary, but make more sense to those of us regularly using the Linux operating system on a number of different platforms.

Performing a full install of Fedora Core 3 for x86_64 took just over 35 minutes. Considering the fact that this includes partitioning the hard drives, creating the file systems, and installing the full 7.5GB of application data, that speed is quite impressive. Putting this into context, it took me just a couple of hours to set up the machine, configure Apache, reconfigure the various services, and then import a 1GB database into MySQL.

All of this was for the real-world test using my own Foodware software ( The application itself involves a combination of a large database and complex processing and parsing, so it is heavy on both disk and processor. I was able to run a simulation test with hundreds of users running complex multipart SQL queries through the Web site before there was a noticeable reduction in performance. In practice, I'd expect to support many thousands of active users on this one machine without any significant problems.

Running the latest AMD 64-bit implementation of the client, I was able to achieve over 30 million keys/second on the RC5-72 project when running four threads across the four CPUs.

For software development there are few tests more extensive (or demanding) than performing a build of a large project; an open source product like gcc or the Linux kernel is a good example. It took just 14 minutes and 15 seconds to perform a complete build of gcc v3.4.2 from source code. Compiling the entire Linux kernel (v2.6.9) from source took significantly less than five minutes.

Available Configurations

The V40z comes in four standard configurations:
  • Sun Fire V40z with two AMD Opteron 844, 2GB of RAM, one 73GB U320 SCSI HDD, $8,495
  • Sun Fire V40z with two AMD Opteron 848, 4GB of RAM, one 73GB U320 SCSI HDD, $12,495
  • Sun Fire V40z with four AMD Opteron 848, 8GB of RAM, two 73GB U320 SCSI HDD, $21,495
  • Sun Fire V40z with four AMD Opteron 850, 8GB of RAM, two 73 GB U320 SCSI HDD, $24,995
All of these are adaptable and expandable according to your needs. The entire system is also later upgradeable, so it's possible to upgrade a two-CPU system to four CPUs and extend the memory capacity as you add the second CPU daughterboard. Hard drives (up to 143GB) and memory can, of course, be added as you need them.

In February 2005 these configurations and prices will change. Support for the Opteron 852 CPU, which runs at 2.6GHz will be added, as will support for 292GB hard drives, thereby supporting up to 1.7TB within the V40z chassis. The RAM will also be upgraded to DDR400 from the current DDR333 support.


The Fire V40z provides a very flexible hardware platform on which you could deploy any application. If you need raw processing power, then upgrade to a four-way system with just one or two disks. If you want a database or file server, put six 146GB drives in a RAID configuration to provide the raw disk power you need. Or, make use of both and employ the machine as an effective Internet server.

The V40z is an exceedingly powerful and adaptable machine in a very small package. At just 3U high, 12 of these could easily fit into a standard rackmount cabinet. That's 48 Opteron CPUs and up to 10TB of storage (20TB with the new 292GB drives) in a relatively small space. More important, the units would be easy to manage and upgrade: you'd rarely need to either take them down or remove them from the rack during upgrades and replacement.

After a month of using this machine, I really have very little to find fault with. I'd be happy to recommend the V40z as an excellent multipurpose server in an SME, or as a departmental or task-specific server in a larger organization.

If I have one complaint, it's the noise, but in a dedicated environment it really wouldn't be an issue. In fact, even with the noise, I'd be tempted to have this unit in my server room just because of the storage and power provided in such a relatively small package.

More Stories By Martin C. Brown

Martin C. Brown is a former IT director with experience in cross-platform integration. A keen developer, he has produced dynamic sites for blue-chip customers, including HP and Oracle, and is the technical director of Now a freelance writer and consultant, MC, as he is better known, works closely with Microsoft as an SME; has a regular column on both and IBM's DeveloperWorks Grid Computing site; is a core member of the team; and has written books such as XML Processing with Perl, Python and PHP, and the Microsoft IIS 6 Delta Guide.

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Most Recent Comments
Alan Hargreaves 02/10/05 11:29:27 PM EST

Thanks for the review Martin, I've blogged a link to it. I'm glad you like the box. We do too! :) It's a great box for doing Solaris builds on.


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