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[K12OSN] Penguin Computing Relion 140 Review

As promised, here is my review of the Relion 140 I recently ordered from Penguin Computing. The machine has the following major specs:

-1U (1.75") high rack-mount enclosure
- Dual Xeon 2.66Ghz with Hyper-threading
- 6GB of registered PC 2100 DDR SDRAM ( 6x 1GB Corsair DIMMs)
- Tyan Thunder i7501 Motherboard (Two onboard GB NICs, 1 onboard 100MB NIC, onboard ATI video, USB, 2 serial, 1 LPT)
- 3 36GB 10K RPM Seagate Cheetah SCA HDD's (setup in a 70GB Raid 5 array)
- LSI MegaRaid 320164 with Battery backup and 64MB of cache RAM
- slim (laptop style) CD-ROM
- 3 year warranty (extended support available, but not purchased)

Summary for the impatient:
The Good:
Top-shelf components, well assembled. Very, very fast machine with hyper-threading and 533Mhz FSB. Out of the box configuration was very usable. An excellent buy at $5300, with a comparable machines with comparable support plans from Dell (PowerEdge 2650, 2U rather than 1U) costing about $1000 more or from HP/Compaq (Proliant DL360, 1U) almost $3000 more. Very good customer service so far.

The Bad:
Pre-loaded RH 8 didn't have the "bigmem" kernel so 2GB of the RAM was not being used. Shipped printed manual is slightly out of date. Some inconsistencies between the website and the actual product, and within the website itself. Rack-mounting was a hassle in a two-post rack. Keep in mind that this machine is really designed to be installed in a four-post rack, so I can't really ding it too much for not going into a two-poster without a little fudging, and that really was the biggest negative aspect of this machine. Only one serial port, no LPT. Why?! Forgot to ship the drive cage keys and some screws. Definitely designed for the server room, this is a very loud machine.

Bottom Line:
I would give this server a 8.5 out of 10 rating. The seemingly numerous negative points are minor, and many of them are beyond the control of Penguin, or were oversights that I would expect to not be typical of them. All in all, they pale in comparison to the performance and value that this machine offers, and I expect that had my particular situation had been a little different, the Relion 140 would be walking away with a much higher score.

Full Review:
Out of the box:

The first impression this machine makes is one of quality. It ships in a very sturdy box, and is very well protected by several inches of foam on every side. Upon opening the box you are greeted by the usual accessory compartment, flanked on either side by ball-bearing mounting rails. Below that is the system itself. The accessory box includes a copy of the packing slip, a power cord, an small assortment of screws, some custom-printed Penguin Computing manuals, and the manuals and driver disks for the motherboard and the RAID controller. Also included was a little stuffed penguin that I frankly could have lived without, although it is cute, and a very stylish Penguin Computing T-shirt, which I rather like. My shipment was missing the keys to the drive cages, but a quick call to my sales rep got them sent out right away. I also discovered later that I was missing some of the screws needed to mount the machine to the rails it shipped with. Luckily, I had some that fit on-hand, but they are a somewhat unusual size, so it was not a simple thing to track them down. I had to do a lot of sorting through my hardware bin.

Pre-loaded Software:

The system came with Redhat 8.0 pre-loaded, and I gave that only a brief spin before wiping it out and loading K12LTSP on it. It was a stock installation, and seemed to be well-configured. It was very fast, easily the fastest desktop Linux I have ever used. I just kept open and closing programs and starting and stopping X as I stared in wonder at the speed of it all. The responsiveness was absolutely exhilarating. You haven't lived until you've run a Linux Desktop on this calibre of machine. Unfortunately, I neglected to check if the Megaraid software was pre-loaded. One small oversight I did notice however, is that the "bigmem" kernel was not used by default, so 2 of my 6 GB of RAM were not being used out of the box. This is easy enough to remedy, but if this machine is to be offered as a "turn-key" solution, that really should have been configured properly out of the box.

Under the Hood:

The build quality of this machine is very high. All of the cabling is sensibly routed, and rounded cables in wire-looms are used everywhere that it is appropriate. Very clean and well thought-out. The heatsinks on the processors are fanless, but have the flow from the internal fans directed over them with some plastic baffles. The system has what seems to be a total of 8 very small 20,000 RPM fans inside. This makes for a very loud, rather high-pitched whine when the machine is running. Certainly nothing to worry about in a machine room, but it did bring my co-workers knocking when I initially fired the machine up in my office.

Motherboard and BIOS:

Tyan's server products have always been known to be very good quality, and the Thunder i7501 Pro included in the Relion 140 is no exception. It boots quickly, comes with a very informative manual, and has a very nice BIOS interface. The board is well laid out and seems to have the same high-quality build that I have in the past with other Tyan products. It includes 3 NICs onboard, two 10/100/1000 and one 10/100. I have not seen another board that includes this level of network connectivity built-in. It has a dual-channel Ultra-320 Adaptec SCSI controller on board that seems to support Channel 0 RAID with an expansion card, but I would suggest researching this more before banking on it. In my configuration, this controller is going unused. It seems that Penguin has only recently started using this board, as some of their information on-line and in the printed manual seems to reflect the features of an older motherboard.
One choice that I don't understand is the lack of a second COM port and the entire absence of an LPT port. The motherboard has headers for then (and they are even enabled in the BIOS's initial config) and the chassis has knock-outs for them, but they were not cabled out for some reason. With the attention to detail that the rest of this machine was put together with, I am really surprised by this oversight. Obviously not a big deal in many cases, but if you want to take advantage of this machine's serial port remote management features and have a serial UPS hooked up to auto-shutdown, or you want to use this as a print server, this omission can be a problem. However, the technical specs on the site do only list one serial port and no LPT port, so they are being truthful about the configuration, I just don't understand why not include them when so much functionality and convenience can be added with $5 worth of cable and connectors and about 45 seconds of labor on the part of the build technician. This point also underscores the inconsistency between the webpage and the actual product, the rear-view shots of the server on-line clearly show an older board with only two NICs and the LPT port cabled out to the back as I would have expected it.

RAID controller:

I haven't played with the RAID controller much yet, but initially it is quite nice. It is an LSI Logic MegaRaid, not one that I have used before. In the past, I have dealt only with Adaptec and PERC controllers. This one seems comparable to those. The BIOS includes a feature they call Web BIOS, which is basically a point-and-click interface for the BIOS configuration. A very nice feature that I found to be quite usable. You can also use a more traditional text / keyboard interface if you like. As one would expect, Linux seems to be well supported by this card, and the included driver disk has the necessary tools on it for managing the card, though I have not experimented with them yet. The standard "MegaRaid" kernel driver works fine with it.

Physical Installation:

This was the only really negative part of the machine so far, and one that I expected. This machine is designed to go into a four-post rack. I had to install it in a two-post-rack. This led to considerable headaches, especially since the rack in question was installed too close to equipment behind it, so I had to do some shuffling to open a space (hear the top of the rack) that had sufficient clearance behind it for the machine. This isn't really something I can count against the machine, since this is an installation that it was not truly designed for, but it does raise an important consideration. You _must_ have somewhere around 30 inches of clearance behind the rack or the machine will not fit, and this machine was very clearly designed to be installed into a four-post equipment rack. If you have two-post racks, be prepared for some in-situ engineering to get a livable installation. I emailed tech support to be sure the machine could be safely mounted in a two-post rack, and they said there should be no problem. My initial installation of just sliding the machine in and screwing it to the rack with the mounting tabs led to the machine seriously sagging in the back, which I did not like. So I decided to rig up an installation that was acceptable using the provided mounting rails in a somewhat non-standard fashion. It was at this point that I discovered that I was missing some of the screws necessary to actually attach the machine to the rails. I imagine that my set of screws ended up in the same place my drive cage keys did, so I would not think that this would be typical, I bet I simply got "lucky". As I said before, they are a somewhat odd thread-pitch and size, so finding some that fit was not a small task, but I eventually got it done, and got the machine mounted acceptably. If this machine had claimed to be designed to be installed in a two-post rack ,this would have been a damning experience, but as it is, I think it went acceptably well.

K12LTSP 3.1.0 Installation / performance:

This part of the ride was easy as pie. As you all know, K12LTSP installation is usually smooth as silk, and this was no exception. It even chose to use the "bigmem" kernel by default so that all of my RAM was usable. Nice. Soon I had a complete installation that was ready to rock and roll. The performance of the terminals is lightyears ahead of where it was on the old server, a quad P-Pro 200 with 1 GB of RAM. Finally I can blame performance problems on the network equipment, and those problems are truly minor. Between the massive hardware improvement and moving from K12LTSP 2.0x to 3.1.0, I expect the overall experience in the Linux lab to be much improved next year.


I really like this machine. It does have some rough spots, but certainly nothing that is a deal-breaker. It really offers the best value for this level of performance from a major vendor that I was able to find. It also just thrills me to pieces knowing that I was able to get that value from a Linux-centric company. So far my experiences with my sales rep and with support have been very positive. They have always been responsive and friendly and I don't think I've been put on hold yet. All-in-all, I would heartily recommend this machine to anyone who needs a powerful server for any task. It's 1U design makes it practically disappear in a rack. With flexible configurations starting at only $1700, Penguin offers affordable servers to meet virtually any need. I would be happy to purchase another server from Penguin in the future. Please get back to me if you have any comments or questions about the machine that I did not amply cover here.


-Quentin Hartman-
Academic Computing and Networking Services Coordinator
Fern Ridge School District 28J
Elmira, OR
Office: 541-935-2253 x429
Cell: 541-914-2989
qhartman lane k12 or us

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