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A SQL Server Hardware Nugget A Day – Day 20

For Day 20 of this series, we are going to talk about some factors to consider if you are thinking about building a desktop SQL Server system for development, or testing use. I have had several questions about this subject recently, and I have been thinking about it some anyway, hence today’s topic.

In many organizations, old retired rack-mounted servers are repurposed as development and test servers. Sometimes, old retired workstations are used for this purpose. Quite often, these old machines are three to five years old (or even older). For example, I have a small testing lab at NewsGator that uses a number of old Dell PowerEdge 1850 and 6800 servers, along with a few Dell Precision P470 workstations. All of these machines are about four to six years old, and long out of warranty. Their performance and scalability is quite miserable by today’s standards.

For example, a Dell PowerEdge 1850, with two Intel Xeon Irwindale 3.0GHz processors and 8GB of RAM has a Geekbench score of about 2250. A Dell PowerEdge 6800 with four Xeon 7140M 3.4GHz processors and 64GB of RAM has a Geekbench score of 5023.

By comparison, my current main workstation has an Intel Core i7 930 processor with 12GB of RAM and a Crucial C300 128GB SSD. This relatively humble system has a Geekbench score of around 7300.

My argument is that in many situations, given a limited hardware budget, it may make more sense (for development and testing) to build or buy a new desktop system based on a modern platform rather that using relatively ancient “real” server hardware. Your main limiting factors with a new desktop system will be I/O capacity (throughput and IOPS) and memory capacity, but there are some ways around that..  You should be able to build or buy a very capable test system for less than $2000.00, perhaps far less, depending on how you configure it.

Your two main good choices right now are a 45nm Core i7 “Bloomfield” system (using a Core i7 920, 930, 950, or 960 processor) with an X58 chipset, or a newer 32nm Core i7 Sandy Bridge (using a Core i7 2600 or 2600K processor) with an H67 or P67 chipset.

The older 45nm Nehalem-based Core i7 system has six memory slots, so it can support 24GB of RAM using 4GB DDR3 RAM sticks. It will have plenty of CPU performance and capacity for most development and testing purposes (more than many older four socket rack mounted production servers), and you should not have any driver issues with Windows Server 2008 R2.

The newer 32nm Sandy Bridge Core i7 system only has four memory slots, so it can currently support 16GB of RAM (with 4GB DDR3 RAM sticks). This limit will jump to 32GB once desktop 8GB DDR3 RAM sticks become available. The Sandy Bridge system will have about 50% more CPU capacity than the Nehalem system.

CPU Type Geekbench Max RAM Notes
Core i7 2600 12000 16GB with 4GB sticks
Core i7 950 7800 24GB Has six memory slots

Figure 1: Desktop System Capacity Comparison

You need to look at the motherboard features and specifications closely to make sure you get what you need without paying too much for unnecessary features. You want to get a motherboard that has as many SATA ports as possible (preferably newer 6Gbps SATA III ports) with hardware RAID support if possible. At the same time, you don’t really need the premium gaming (such as SLI or Crossfire support) and over-clocking features in a top-of-the line motherboard. The entry level motherboards will usually have fewer SATA ports, which is a good reason to go a little higher in the lineup. You can also buy PCI-e SATA II or III expansion cards to add even more ports.

Depending on your motherboard vendor, you might run into Sandy Bridge driver issues with Windows Server 2008 R2. The problem is not that there are no drivers, but the fact that the motherboard vendors sometimes wrap the actual driver installation programs in their own installation programs that do OS version checking that fails with Windows Server 2008 R2 (since they assume you will be using Windows 7).

You can buy a large, full tower case, with lots of internal 3.5” drive bays. Then you can buy a number of 1TB Western Digital Black 6Gbps hard drives and/or some consumer grade SSDs, depending on your needs and budget. This will let you have a pretty decent amount of I/O capacity for a relatively low cost.


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