Essential Guide

Hardware for SQL Server: Optimizing performance

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Stylish SQL Server hardware every well-dressed computer is wearing

You want your SQL Server computer in top shape, so dress it in the newest duds. Learn about the latest trends in SQL Server hardware and make your server the talk of the town.

You certainly don't want your SQL Server computers to feel behind the times or left out, especially when it comes to performance. Just as people want the latest threads to look their best, your computers crave the hottest in high-performance SQL Server hardware. Here’s a rundown of what’s in vogue this season.

iSCSI. The new darling of the storage area network (SAN) catwalk, iSCSI is relatively easy to implement, uses commodity Ethernet network adapters and is often easier to troubleshoot than the Fibre Channel often seen in SANs. SQL Server is a slave to redundant, high-speed storage. With good support in the Windows operating system, you can put up more -- and faster -- SANs to suit your computer’s fancy. While Ethernet still doesn’t top out as fast as Fibre Channel, 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) SANs are faster than the most commonly used Fibre Channel installations.

1U server chassis. While I’m not a fan of these for high-volume database hosting, these servers do have a place in SQL Server fashion. Typically supporting one or two CPU sockets and accommodating sufficient amounts of RAM, these machines are a great fit for departmental SQL Server systems or ones dedicated to specific business projects. They take up so little space -- 1U is just a few inches high -- that you can slot one into a spare rack someplace and just let it do its thing. Be aware that these chassis often consume a bit more power, and require better cooling, than roomier chassis, but they do allow for higher-density installations.

Processors. SQL Server used to hit its biggest benchmark numbers running multiway Itanium boxes, and Intel is still pumping out the Itanium 9300 series for your big-metal database applications. That said, Windows isn’t really on board with Itanium anymore (Microsoft dubbed Windows Server 2008 R2 as the last version to support the architecture, and that likely goes for SQL Server 2008 R2), so you’re probably going to be dressing your SQL Server in something a bit more conservative.

Intel’s Xeon 7000 series is the x64 architecture’s closest equivalent to Itanium, supporting up to 256-way processor configurations (drool) and up to eight cores per socket (more drool). If you’re on a bit of a budget, opt for the Xeon 6000 or 5000 sequence, both of which offer two-way configuration support and, in the case of the 6000, up to eight cores (meaning you can stuff 16 cores into a single chassis). Whatever you do, don’t buy a server processor that doesn’t have virtualization extensions (it’s tough to find one that doesn’t, anyway), in case you decide to turn the hardware into a virtualization host one day.

10 Gb Ethernet. Gigabit Ethernet is so last year. Modern data centers are implementing not one, but multiple 10 GbE connections to servers -- complete with 10 Gb switches and appropriate router hardware -- to handle client traffic, cluster interconnections and SAN traffic. Pricing for a complete set of SQL Server hardware is still at the level of a one-off designer gown, but this is definitely the must-have networking technology for high-volume environments. If you’re really looking to break the bank, look into a 20 Gb Fibre Channel network running over fiber-optic lines (additional drool).

Blade servers. It’s still just a niche category on the SQL Server runway, but there are data centers that are adopting the “spread your risk” approach when they’re running multiple SQL Server computers. I’ve seen companies build an entire chassis of blades, each running one or two SQL Server instances. While blades typically don’t support more than a processor or two, companies with numerous SQL Server applications that are “owned” by different departments or projects can simplify management (and save rack space) this way. Using blades is an edgy move in SQL Server hardware fashion: Most companies are achieving the same goals by using virtualization on one or two really robust hosts (that also offers options for high availability).

Higher availability. It used to be that you needed to be very careful about selecting hardware components when building a highly available SQL Server system, such as a cluster built on Windows Cluster Service. Today, virtualization helps change that, enabling you to use any decently configured server without all the special compatibility lists. Using virtualization-based availability, SQL Server doesn’t even realize it’s part of a cluster.

A software layer just above the hypervisor keeps multiple virtual machines (VMs) in lockstep by synchronizing processor and memory state (and sometimes disk state) over a high-speed Ethernet network (think 10 GbE). When one VM stops working, the other simply takes over. Some technologies even support “unbalanced” failure, meaning one host server can lose a network interface card, while the other loses a disk, and the whole combination continues to run. This isn’t hardware, but it’s definitely the limousine every SQL Server who’s any SQL Server will be riding in this season.

Keeping your SQL Server in step with the latest hardware fashions has a number of benefits. You’ll enjoy the improved management capabilities the newer hardware products have, and you’ll often benefit from a lower price per unit of performance. But in the end, it’s the performance you’ll find oh-so chic. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Don Jones
is a co-founder of Concentrated Technology LLC, the author of more than 30 books on IT and a speaker at technical conferences worldwide. He can be reached through his website at www.ConcentratedTech.com.

This was first published in July 2011

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Essential Guide

Hardware for SQL Server: Optimizing performance

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