Go nonstop on the cheap

There is nothing worse for business than server failure, especially when the machine in question provides power for critical Web applications. As companies become more dependent on e-commerce to stay in the black, they are much less likely to emerge unscathed from significant periods of downtime.

Back in the good old days – say, 1994 – it was sufficient to have a fully configured machine sitting in a closet ready to be powered up when an active server happened to crash. But recently, as the Internet has become more globally pervasive, IT managers have turned to server clusters for high-availability, uninterruptible service.

Yet clusters are not without their drawbacks. For one thing, a cluster is only as good as the software that runs on it, and most applications don’t perform well (if at all) in clustered environments without significant modifications. And even if you use cluster-enabled applications, licensing issues can rear an ugly head: A two-node cluster represents an extra server software license. Hence, even though sophisticated fault-tolerant systems have existed for years, their price tags have scared off many potential customers.

Into the breach steps NEC Corp., with its new Express5800/ft servers, which offer fault-tolerance features (licensed from Stratus Technologies Inc.) at an affordable price: A single-CPU pedestal model can be had for $37,473.

But there’s more to the Express5800/ft series than just the price tag. Most notably, the new servers offer outstanding service availability – due largely to their clever design.

The device is almost like two servers in one: The CPU, I/O, memory, and power resources are all duplicated in hardware and all run in lockstep. This approach presents a single system image that can sense impending hardware failures and switch over to the system’s “B side” without any loss of data or system integrity.

This kind of constant availability can be valuable to almost any type of business, most notably those providing portal or Web services. Collaboration and messaging applications are also best served by fault-tolerant systems, especially when you consider that many companies grind to a halt in the absence of e-mail. But the biggest market for products like the Express5800/ft is, hold on to your hat, retail.

Why? A fault-tolerant server functions perfectly as the back-end machine for point-of-sale systems given that few, if any, large retailers can afford more than a few IT staffers to handle multiple, geographically dispersed outlets. And, of course, in retail, server outages translate directly to lost revenue.

In our hands

We tested the Express5800/320La in a basic configuration: The twin-system modules were equipped with an 800MHz Pentium III CPU and 1GB of RAM in a pedestal case. (Dual-CPU modules and rack-mount boxes are expected before year’s end.) The Express5800’s physical structure includes a well-designed case with space for feeding cables through the box itself. All the essential LEDs and network ports are up front for easy access and monitoring. We also noted the absence of traditional serial DIN (Deutsche Industry Norm) ports for keyboard and mouse: USB ports are conveniently located on the front and rear of the server. This is a big plus, and it’s about time, too. After all, there’s nothing more inane than having to bring down a server in order to reconnect a serial mouse.

For anyone booting an Express5800/ft for the first time, don’t worry about the nasty red LEDs until the OS has been running for a few minutes. The fault indicators don’t turn off until the A and B sides are fully synced, which caused us a couple of anxious moments while we wondered what else we could substitute for this review if the server was truly DOA. But we satisfied ourselves of the server’s health with the included FT Server Utility, which provides a treelike central management console for the server itself, with important components easily identified and manipulated.

Because of the unique design constraints required for a fault-tolerant system, the Express5800/ft series supports a limited number of network adapters and storage controllers. This is mostly a driver issue, as seen in the case of the single-supported network adapter from Intel, in which the system is presenting one virtual MAC (Media Access Control) address over two network cards. Similarly, when you run out of storage bays in the Express – each module has three – you can fit about 110GB into the box. NEC recommends you consider a NAS (network attached storage) or SAN (storage area network) solution for further storage needs.

Of course, the Express5800/ft series isn’t the best fit for every situation. Even NEC admits that large-scale databases are better off on servers with more than one or two processors. Nonetheless, with the pervasive multi-tiered model for Web-based application services, the Express5800/ft servers play the role of application server exceptionally well. Your company may not need a fault-tolerant server if you can handle six to 12 hours of downtime standing on your head. For the rest of you, this is your wake-up call. Fault tolerance is here, now, and at a price that won’t have your CFO sweating blood.


Business Case: Downtime costs money, and until now, so has fault-tolerance technology. This family of network server hardware offers true fault tolerance for the price of a decent server cluster.

Technology Case: The Express5800/ft series brings high-end fault tolerance within the reach of most businesses for the first time. Although not the best choice for an enterprise database platform, they make great application servers.


    AffordableStrong system management tools, including capability to switch between server modules on the flyConstant availability for applications that are not cluster-aware


    Not suited for large database applications due to lack of CPU scalability

Cost: The NEC Express5800/320La (2-way) pedestal server, lists for $37,473, when configured with 512MB RAM, 18GB HDD, and pre-loaded with Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server operating system. A similarly configured rack mount (8U) NEC Express5800/320Lr (2-way) server will list for an additional $608.

Platform(s): Windows 2000 Advanced Server, Linux in early 2002.

Further information on the Express5800 can be found at http://www.necft.com.

P.J. Connolly (pj_connolly@infoworld.com) is a senior analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center.