The AVADirect Custom Small Business Server System that we are looking at today was at one time planned to be a small, low cost, high performance NAS server that would compete with the likes of Thecus and QNAP on price, but deliver superior performance. Somewhere along the line the custom NAS server transformed into a Small Business Server; customization had dramatically changed the face of our NAS and with it the intended customer, usage model and more importantly, the price.
Under normal circumstances I don't write about the server market other than what I am familiar with; NAS servers. Over the last few years NAS servers have evolved. The task of storing data has become elementary; some motherboards allow for as many as 12 hard drives without needing to add a single add-in controller card. With such large storage possible on client machines, NAS servers have evolved and now include web servers, download managers, DHCP services, domain management and many more features. Just look at the laundry list of functions that come in the default QNAP configuration, then add on the additional software packages in the QPKG add-on kits and you will start to see that even the lowest cost SOHO NAS products have grown into small business servers.
Even though NAS servers have gained functionality, their costs have stayed relatively the same. For the most part you can grade a NAS by the number of drive bays it uses. When shopping for a NAS most users determine how many drives they want to have; it is really the first question that needs answered. After that comes additional functionality and finally, price. Once these factors have been considered, the purchasing decision is made.
AVADirect offers several general use servers, enterprise storage systems and even SOHO storage systems. Each can be configured to your needs with drive, memory and software configurations based on your input. If you purchase the NAS or server with the drives from AVADirect they will even install your drives, configure your server with the configuration information you provide and deliver a system that just needs to plug into your network and be provided power.
Today we are looking at one of AVADirect's custom small business servers that uses a Windows operating system and features Seagate's newest SAS 6G 2TB Constellation ES enterprise class hard drives.
Let's take a look at the specifications and see how the server was configured.
Specifications, Pricing and Availability
The first thing that sticks out is the processing power given to this Small Business Server. The most powerful CPU we've seen from the traditional NAS products was a Core 2 Duo. The custom system AVADirect sent over uses a Core 2 Quad Q9550S processor running at 2.83GHz. This is a 65 watt processor with 12MB of cache. It is safe to say that the processor is overkill for a storage system, but we have never been the ones to ask for less power.
Running down the list, we see that the heart of the system is a ZOTAC motherboard based on the Intel G41 chipset. This board offers onboard video, but when the boards PCIe slot is used disables all digital video signals. Since the system uses a PCIe SAS HBA you will not be able to use the onboard HDMI or DVI ports. The only video signal we were able to use came from a DVI to VGA adapter; analog VGA signals were passed through even though the digital portion was disabled. Obviously this is going to be a big issue with most users who are looking to use the server to perform client tasks and not as a remote server. One option is Remote Desktop Connection and with it you will be able to run nearly every aspect of the server like a client system.
For storage the AVADirect Custom Small Business Server shipped with Seagate's new Constellation ES 2TB SAS 6Gb/s drives. The server uses four of them in a RAID 5 configuration. The Constellation ES Series is designed for high reliability and to standards that far exceed typical desktop storage parts. At this time they are the only SAS 6Gb/s nearline drives available on the market and AVADirect couldn't have chosen a better set of drives to use in the system.
The task of connecting the RAID 5 Seagate Constellation ES array to the system went to Highpoint's RocketRAID 2640x4 SAS/SATA RAID controller. The 2640x4 only handles SAS 3Gb/s, so it was not able to get the most out of the Constellation ES drives that are capable of running at SAS 6Gb/s. The 2640x4 is considered to be an entry level product, void of onboard cache and a XOR engine. In the past we have taken issue with Highpoint's software interface and found that it lacked basic functions that are included with software packages from LSI, Adaptec and ATTO.
Connecting the system to your network is possible via two ways. The ZOTAC motherboard has onboard WiFi and a Gigabit Ethernet port. In testing we found the Gigabit Ethernet port to be average, but the WiFi to be horrible. With the included antenna attached the system would only connect to our wireless router at 40%, even though the two were only ten feet apart with direct line of site.
Our AVADirect Custom Small Business Server as configured had a retail cost of 3313.92 USD. This price includes the four Seagate enterprise class HDDs (the bulk of the cost), a three year warranty on all parts and labor as well as the configuration using Windows Small Business Server Standard 2008.
AVA used a double box method and the outside package was as large as what we would see if receiving a full size tower computer.
After digging through the layers of foam, bubble wrap and peanuts, we ended up with a motherboard box filled with accessories and the standard Chenbro box used to ship the chassis to manufacturers.
Inside the Chenbro package was our server with an extra layer of protection.
AVADirect does a very good job of protecting their products during shipping. We found that the server is at least ten inches away from the outside of the package in all directions.
Inside the motherboard package we found several accessories. Included were the drive discs for the motherboard and Highpoint RocketRAID controller, a set of keys for locking the front of the server, a DVI to VGA Adapter (that you will need), the antenna for WiFi connectivity, several manuals and finally the external power supply that is used to provide power to the server.
With the power supply on the outside of the server, users will not need to worry about the additional heat generated by the PSU. We actually really liked this feature.
The AVADirect Custom Small Business Server
Here we get our first look at the AVADirect Custom Small Business Server. AVA used a really nice Chenbro case that can only be described as a small form factor server chassis. The case can be used as shown or on its side. At the top the case has a locking mechanism so you can secure the server.
With the door open and the server now on its side we can see the front ports and HDD bays. The system uses four sliding trays that connect to a backplane for the drives. This makes swapping drives very easy, should you need to do so. Behind the door is the power button, so you will need the key to turn the system on if the door is locked; a nice security feature. AVA also included a slot load DVD writer. Finally, there are two USB 2.0 ports also located on the front of the server.
The side of the server has ventilation to allow the system to breathe easier.
Most of the magic happens at the back of the case, where all of the connections are made. Here we see six USB 2.0 ports, audio, the WiFi antenna mount and the ports for video. As we stated before, you will not be able to use any of the digital video connections since the system uses a PCIe RAID controller.
The other side also has vents. This is the top of the case if it is being used on its side.
Finally, we have the internals. As you can see, everything is very compact and there isn't any room to grow unless you replace existing parts.
Test System Setup
Let's take another quick look at the specification list again. As we mentioned before, there are a few issues that should be addressed right from the start. The first is digital video, or more specifically, lack of it. That means no HDMI or DVI and with it, no HDCP. Most users are going to remote desktop into the system to make changes, so the lack of digital video isn't that big of a deal unless you are looking for a joint client / server system.
The next issue has to do with the storage system. Even though the server uses four of the best traditional platter based drives, they are connected to a low budget RAID controller. We will hold off for the actual tests before diving in on this one, but no cache and no XOR engine means your RAID 5 isn't going to be efficient.
The next issue with the storage system goes a little further than just poor choices in hardware. The system ships with four Seagate Constellation ES SAS drives that are 2TB of capacity each. Since AVADirect put all of the drives a single array, it breaks the 2TB limit. In a nutshell, Windows will only see up to 2TB per drive or array. The way to get around this is to configure the drive in "dynamic disk" mode. The problem is you can't boot to an array; that is, load an operating system off of a dynamic disk. In the end, the 'as configured' storage system is only capable of using only 2TB worth of its 8TB available capacity.
On the bright side, the Small Business Server we received does have a very fast quad core processor that is backed up by 4GB of high speed DDR-II RAM from a quality manufacturer. The Chenbro case the server is housed in is very nice and offers higher security than the QNAP and Thecus systems we test monthly.
Benchmarks - HD Tach
Version and / or Patch Used: 3.0
Developer Homepage: http://www.simplisoftware.com
Product Homepage: http://www.simplisoftware.com/Public/index.php?request=HdTach
Buy It Here
HD Tach has been around for a long time and is excellent when it comes to testing hard drive performance. It is also a very handy program when it comes to testing the controller used on particular motherboards. Tests such as Read, CPU Utilization and Burst are available at a click of the button and give you a good idea of how the hard drive can perform from system to system.
In HD Tach we get a chance to see the AVADirect Custom Small Business Server run the gauntlet in an unformatted state. This way we can see the full 8TB of storage in action on the HPT RocketRAID to gauge a baseline for performance.
Our unformatted, unpartitioned read speed tops out very close to 325MB/s, but has an average speed of 254.2MB/s. The write speed fairs a little better with the write speed reaching very close to 400MB/s and an average write speed of 292.5MB/s.
Benchmarks - Everest Random Access Time
Everest Random Access Time
Version and / or Patch Used: 4.60
Developer Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Product Homepage: http://www.lavalys.com
Everest Ultimate and Corporate Edition offer several different benchmarks for testing and optimizing your system or network. The Random Access test is one of very few if not only that will measure hard drives random access times in hundredths of milliseconds as oppose to tens of milliseconds.
Drives with only one or two tests displayed in write the write test mean that they have failed the test and their Maximum and possibly their Average Scores were very high after the cached fills. This usually happens only with controllers manufactured by JMicron.
The storage system does a good job handling access time. Here we see just a slight variation across the array.
The write access time test went almost as well as the read access time. There were two large spikes, but it wasn't the chaotic mess I expected to see.
Benchmarks - CrystalDiskMark
Version and / or Patch Used: 3.0 Technical Preview
Developer Homepage: http://crystalmark.info
Product Homepage: http://crystalmark.info/software/CrystalDiskMark/index-e.html
Download here: http://crystaldew.info/category/software/crystaldiskmark
CrystalDiskMark is storage benchmark software.
* Sequential reads/writes
* Random 4KB/512KB reads/writes
* Text copy
* Change dialog design
* internationalization (i18n)
Note: CrystalDiskMark 3.0 is not available to the public yet, but the Technical Preview does allow us to test 4K performance at queue depths of 4 and 32 in addition to 1. The current release CrystalDiskMark only shows us QD 1.
In CDM we are looking at the 4K performance and how an array reacts to native command queuing. In this test we see the array scaling well in the read category, but the write side of things looks a little stagnant.
Benchmarks - AS SSD
AS SSD Benchmark
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.2.3577.40358
Developer Homepage: Alex Intelligent Software
Product Homepage: Alex Intelligent Software
Download here: http://www.alex-is.de/PHP/fusion/downloads.php?cat_id=4&download_id=9
AS determines the performance of Solid State Drives (SSD). The tool contains four synthetic as well as three practice tests. The synthetic tests are to determine the sequential and random read and write performance of the SSD. These tests are carried out without the use of the operating system caches.
In all synthetic tests the test file size is 1GB. AS can also determine the access time of the SSD, the access of which the drive is determined to read through the entire capacity of the SSD (Full Stroke). The write access test is only to be met with a 1 GB big test file. At the end of the tests three values for the read and write as well as the overall performance will be issued. In addition to the calculated values which are shown in MB/s, they are also represented in IO per seconds (IOPS).
Note: AS SSD is a great benchmark for many tests, but since Crystal Disk Mark covers a broader range of 4K tests and HD Tune Pro covering sequential speeds, we will only use the Copy Benchmark from AS SSD.
- Copy Benchmark
In AS SSD we get to see how the AVADirect Custom Small Business Server handles transferring data from one area of the disk to another.
Benchmarks - Passmark
Passmark Advanced Multi-User Tests
Version and / or Patch Used: 6.1
Developer Homepage: http://www.passmark.com
Test Homepage: http://www.passmark.com
Many users complain that I/O Meter is too complicated of a benchmark to replicate results so my quest to find an alternative was started. Passmark has added several multi-user tests that measure a hard drives ability to operate in a multi-user environment.
The tests use different settings to mimic basic multi-user operations as they would play out on your server. Variances is read / write percentage as well as random / sequential reads are common in certain applications, Web Servers read nearly 100% of the time while Database Servers write a small amount of data.
The Workstation test is the only single user environment and will be similar to how you use your system at home.
In our file server test we see the AVA Custom Small Business Server achieving just over 20MB/s.
The web server test faired much better. In this task the server achieved nearly 35MB/s.
The workstation and database tests are easily the most difficult tests to achieve very good results and the key to achieving really good performance in an array is having an abundant amount of cache on your controller. In the workstation test we were able to hit 3.5MB/s. This is right around what we were able to achieve with a single Seagate Constellation ES 2TB drive.
The database test is very hard on platter drives, but gives the best solid state drives a taste of humble pie as well. In this test we achieved just over 3MB/s, but this isn't much better than what a single Constellation ES is able to hit.
As I stated in the introduction, the AVADirect Custom Server started out as a custom storage server, but quickly derailed. During the transformation from beefed up NAS to entry level server, something was lost. There are a few places where we can point the finger, but the 3300 Dollar price tag is a really good place to start. Once you take away the cost of the Seagate Constellation ES SAS drives that add around 1200 USD to the total, you are left with around 2K in hardware that is better suited for a system you build your Facebook surfing friend than it does handling your Quickbooks database.
The reality of the situation is, once you take out the budget controller card, you have access to the video features that would make this system a perfect fit for a media server, media center or general use computer. The processor and RAM combination is overkill for most storage tasks, but as stated previously, we would never want to go with a smaller processor and have to upgrade later.
On the other side of the coin, adding the Seagate drives is what gives validity to the whole server premises. The drives are absolutely the best choice for any serious high capacity nearline storage system. This is an area where Seagate has dominated for a very long time, but what do you expect since they started the nearline market.
With such high praise for the drives in the system, we now have to turn our attention to the only part that could possibly screw it all up; the RAID controller. If you are spending 1200 Dollars on enterprise class hard drives, the last thing you want to do is tie them to a subpar storage controller that is slower than most motherboards onboard, software RAID controllers. Even though it would have added another 300 Dollars to the system build, just about anything with an XOR engine and cache would have been a better fit for these drives.
If you really want to round things out, keeping your operating system on a separate drive would be a nice idea, too. This will allow you to take advantage of the full 8TB capacity made available by the Seagate drives and not neuter the array to just 2TB.