One of the difficulties that any ISV faces is having access to high end test machines with different number of processors and different architectures to test as many scenarios as possible. This is especially important now with the multi-core saga because what runs pretty well with two processors may be comparably sluggish with four and may not improve at all with eight or more. On top of this there are now three dominant architectures x86, x64 and IA64. You may be wondering what IA64 is doing in the list, after all Itanium is old hat. Well, in certain fields it is still being used, NASA – which is amongst our clients – has loads of them, for example. Now, where do you go about buying all these machines without breaking the bank? You buy them at the Ebay’s servers section.

I rarely buy anything from Ebay and never bought anything outside the computing sections but I have one golden rule which is “establish the price before bidding”. It’s just too easy to end up in a bidding war and pay way too much for what is essentially a high risk purchase. After all, these are old battered computers that might die on arrival. It took me two months but I managed to buy too very good servers for the grand total of… one hundred pounds!!

I bought an Intel Quad Itanium with 8 Gbytes of memory and two 10k hard drives and a humongous DL760, a Compaq monster with 8 processors, 10 Gbytes of RAM and a SCSI RAID with four drives. So, you think, end of the story, install the software and the data center is ready. Not really.

My understanding of rack servers was pretty limited, in fact I thought that they were little more than glorified desktop machines with twice the fans and boy was I wrong. The first shock was the physical size and weight of these machines. The Intel server weighs some 20 or 30 Kgs and the DL760 somewhere between 50 and 60 Kgs. The second is that everything is proprietary. I have been building PCs since the 386 and the only thing I recognized were the memory and the PCI slots and even those are longer than the regular ones. And the PIII Xeon processors are huge, really huge and heavy, maybe four times a regular PIII.

I managed to collect both servers on the same day and arrived home with a really heavy load and wondering if I had bought a load of trouble. After unloading I started with the smaller but faster Intel Itanium. Connected the power, a keyboard, screen and pressed the power button. And this thing starts all its fans plus the two power supplies roaring away. You don’t want this thing in your bedroom. Actually, you don’t want this thing in your house at all. If you live in an apartment or in a small house it is just too loud to have around, you need a garage, a basement or a garden shed. These things also take a long time to give any indication on screen that they are working at all so you need to be patient. And I was patient but after a lot of cryptic messages it crashed while scanning the SCSI bus with an error message. I googled it and lo and behold, not a single hit. And it hit me; you are on your own. There just aren’t enough users of these servers out there. So I immediately thought, gosh, here’s a lemon, fifty pounds down the drain.

So I moved on to the DL760. If I thought that the Intel was loud, this one brought the family to the kitchen to check out what the problem was. It is way louder on startup. But it started! Just like any desktop, it took it’s time to initialize the 10 Gbytes, it POSTed asked a few questions that I dismissed and tried to boot from the hard drive with the old time OS not found error. Good I thought, I turned it off and went looking for the OS disks. I came back armed with an Ubuntu Server CDROM, close all the doors and windows and powered the DL760. It started but it did not POST with the error: “Please insert ROMPACK disquete”. That was too much for a single day. I killed the power and moved the servers into storage with that horrible feeling that I had spent a whole day and one hundred quid for nothing. But it wasn’t over just yet.

The second part of the saga is here.