In January, I made one of my semi annual pilgrimages to WeirdStuff, the amazing computer salvage store in Sunnyvale California. While prowling the back halls, between a smoke testing apparatus and a broken plotter, I spotted a Cubix ERS chassis. This brought back a flood of memories, since I purchased just such a device early in my career. This proto-blade server system was a decade ahead of its time, and I thought I might take a few minutes to describe it.
My cc:Mail Responsibility
The year was 1995, and I was a systems administrator responsible for e-mail messaging at a high-tech company in Massachusetts. This was my first full-time job, and was a result of my systems administration experience at college (WPI class of ’94) and as part of the GweepCo network cooperative/apartment. In short, I was as green as green could be but was learning the ropes of systems administration on a daily basis.
Some of my tasks included transitioning from SunOS to Solaris, configuring corporate SMTP with Sendmail, and maintaining and improving a Lotus cc:Mail environment. It was this last task that brought me face-to-face with the Cubix ERS/FT.
cc:Mail was a terrible system to manage, with frequent system interruptions due to database corruption and overloaded servers. The cc:Mail system relied on DOS servers to store messages and manage directory services. My company was fairly large, with locations in multiple countries around the world and the number of remote dial-up users.
The entire cc:Mail system was set up on a strange assortment of tower servers and scavenged desktop PCs. I wish I had a photo of the remote access stack, which featured half a dozen of Compaq 386 desktop PCs connected to US Robotics, Hayes, and Zoom modems. These computers were constantly locking up, so my first effort to improve availability was implementing a remote access power cycling solution: Rather than driving into work on a Sunday night, I could call in from my home and restart the computers.
Introducing the Cubix ERS
We also had a number of systems serving as gateways and mail servers. In all, the cc:Mail stack took up the better part of a wire rack and required almost constant care and feeding. We needed something better, with active management, a smaller footprint, and more reliable hardware. I spotted just such a device in a trade magazine: The Cubix ERS/FT.
I remember spending hours creating a document justifying the considerable expense of purchasing this amazing device, which cost more than the new car I had recently purchased. But I did justify it, and then spent months transitioning everything from the junky PC stack to this integrated rackmount solution. I left the company shortly thereafter, but always remembered the Cubix with fondness.
The Cubix Enhanced Resource Subsystem (ERS) was a high density PC compatible server solution from the mid-1990’s. I purchased mine in late 1995, loaded with a combination of 386 and 486 processor cards. The system allowed me to eliminate a stack of PC servers, but the ability to monitor and reset devices on command was far more useful.
The ERS chassis featured dual power supplies, a multiplexed floppy drive and shared keyboard/video/mouse (KVM) solution along with a supervisor card and software to manage everything. These chassis could be stacked and daisychained, allowing a single manager to control a multitude of servers. Although not exactly hot-swappable, the power supplies, fans, and just about everything else was easily accessible and removable. The entire chassis was mounted on slide out rails, a novelty at the time, at least to me. Access was through the top panel, with a hinged fan tray that can be lifted out of the way.
A Proto-Blade System, Not a True Blade Server
Although the Cubix system was certainly designed with the same goals as modern blade servers, it did not yet include some of the key technologies that would lead to the blade revolution. Processor boards and hard disk drives could be pulled and inserted while the rest of the system was running, but it was not truly hot-swap in the modern sense. The supervisor was ahead of its time, though I/O sharing was limited to KVM and each processor included its own I/O controller and ports.
Inside the chassis was a 16 slot backplane divided, by default, into 8 segments. Each slot could hold a processor board or expansion card, and multiple segments could be joined together with a tiny bridging board if more expansion was required. Each processor board featured CPU, memory, controller circuitry, and basic I/O chips. Hard drives were connected via a ribbon cable that ran to the front of the chassis rather than being mounted on the processor boards themselves.
I recall being able to power down a segment or group to replace a processor board or hard drive without affecting the rest of the running system. But this was a perilous maneuver, involving pulling out the entire chassis, lifting the lid, and unplugging a multitude of ribbon cables. I honestly never wanted to do that while the system was running.
The processors were specially made for communications applications, like my cc:Mail access set up. They monitored the serial ports and could be set to reboot when the modem disconnected or if the modem was no longer responsive. The supervisor also monitored other functions and could reset processors as needed. I believe it could also automate the power up sequence, allowing me to bring up the main cc:Mail database before powering on the access nodes.
In all, the Cubix ERS/FT was a great little system at the time. It really improved availability and performance of my cc:Mail system and cleaned up the data center at the same time. Although not quite as flexible as a modern blade server system, the Cubix ERS should go down in history as a worthy predecessor.
Cubix still exists today, unlike competitors like J&L Information Systems, ChatCom and CommVision. They focused on their bus expansion concept and now sell remote PCI Express chassis mainly used in the graphics world. It’s actually fairly cool stuff – how about a Thunderbolt model, guys?
For more Cubix ERS joy, see this series of YouTube videos by user jpkiwigeek.