CIO

Nehalem tower servers: Dell, Fujitsu, HP

Three new servers combine huge performance gains with excellent management tools; choice comes down to expandability, price

I have to admit that I get a little excited whenever a new generation of scorch-your-eyebrows-off CPUs hits the server market. So when I got a chance to check out the newest Intel Nehalem Xeon systems, I made sure my insurance policy was up to date and relocated any breakables to another room.

Intel's newest server processors represent a major architectural change from earlier Xeon generations. One big improvement over previous-generation Xeons is the addition of an onboard memory controller and Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA). Taking a cue from AMD, Intel added NUMA to Nehalem to help eliminate cache starvation by tying banks of RAM to each processor.

Intel also redesigned the I/O system between CPU and peripherals, doing away with the front-side bus bottleneck and replacing it with a high-speed pathway called QPI - Quick Path Interconnect. QPI can transfer data to local peripherals as fast as 25.6GBps, nearly double the performance of a 1600MHz front-side bus system.

Other improvements include the reintegration of Hyper-Threading, the elimination of the Northbridge controller (PCI Express and Direct Media Interface are now in the CPU) and support for DDR3 memory.

Enter the dragon

I was able to secure three tower servers based on Intel's latest Xeon offering from Dell, Fujitsu, and Hewlett-Packard, and from the moment I fired each one up for the first time, I knew these servers were something special. The best part was watching Windows Server 2008 (my requested operating system) boot up in about 52 seconds — simply fantastic.

In order to make this an apples-to-apples comparison, I requested a similar configuration from all three server vendors. (IBM was also invited, but did not provide a system.) Each server came with two Xeon X5550 2.66GHz CPUs, 24GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 RAM, and Windows Server 2008 Standard Edition (64-bit). I asked each vendor to supply hard drives in a RAID 5 configuration but left the size and type of drives up to each vendor. Dual Gigabit Ethernet and multiple USB 2.0 ports were standard on each system.

To get a feel for each platform's performance, I ran the SPECjbb2005 Java server benchmark and the STREAM memory benchmark tools on each system. The SPECjbb2005 test is a Java virtual machine stress test that emulates a three-tier client/server order and inventory system. During the test, a number of virtual warehouses is created (two warehouses per processor core), with each warehouse handling order entry, payment, status, delivery, and reporting transactions. Additionally, SPECjbb2005 also measures the performance of the CPUs, caches, memory, and the scalability of shared memory.

Rock around the clock

Using SPECjbb2005, I was able to make all 16 cores (8 Hyper-Threaded cores) busy, achieving near 100 percent utilization at the end of the test run. The test suite increased the workload by one until it reached the maximum of 32 virtual warehouses (2 warehouses per core). At the end of the test run, SPECjbb2005 generates a score in bops (business operations per second, and SPECjbb2005's unit of measure) for each warehouse simulation. Bops represent the overall throughput achieved by all the warehouses in a test run; a higher bops value indicates better overall performance.

Test Center Scorecard

Performance

Expandability

Management

Power Usage

Value

Overall score

40%

20%

20%

10%

10%

Dell PowerEdge T610

10

7

9

9

8

8.9 (very good)

Fujitsu Primergy TX300

10

9

9

7

8

9.1 (excellent)

HP ProLiant ML350

10

8

9

8

9

9.1 (excellent)

The SPECjbb2005 results of all three servers — 219,342, 218,527, and 217,820 bops — varied by less than 1 percent, showing performance of the systems to be essentially identical. This is due in large part to the similarities in the underlying architecture of the motherboards. For comparison with a previous server generation, I ran SPECjbb2005 against an HP ProLiant ML360 G3 and saw just how far the technology has come. My G3 ProLiant has a pair of 2.8GHz dual-core Xeons (533MHz FSB, 512MB of L2 cache) and 4GB of PC2100 DDR RAM. SPECjbb2005 was only able to run up to eight warehouses (my dual-core Xeons were not Hyper-Threaded), but the results were only about 5 percent of what the new Nehalem-based systems posted. For example, at eight warehouses, the three Nehalem servers averaged 153,259 bops, while my G3 ProLiant scored only 7,596 bops — not even close.

While the load testing took place, I monitored power usage using the Watts Up Pro 'plug load' meter. Watts Up Pro logged all of the collected data via USB cable to a client PC where I was able to view watts, voltage, amperage, and other metrics specific to power consumption.

This is one area where I did see a variance among the servers. All three servers drew very little power while in standby mode (plugged in but powered off). Once the systems were powered on and booted up, the Dell PowerEdge consumed fewer watts under load than the HP server and substantially less than the Fujitsu server. The potential impact on your power bill? Assuming a rate of 14 cents per kilowatt hour (roughly the US average), the Dell would cost about $100 less than the Fujitsu, and about $25 less than the HP, to run 24 hours per day for a year.

The STREAM 5.8 memory benchmark allowed me to see how fast bytes could be moved in and out of memory. STREAM measures sustainable memory bandwidth in megabytes per second, and all three servers recorded performance numbers that back up Nehalem's architectural advances. As with SPECjbb2005, the STREAM Triad results — 33,463, 33,508, and 33,536 — were again very close together, varying less than 1 percent across the three servers.

Server virtualization is high on most admins' checklists, and the Nehalem Xeons are built to provide support for all popular virtualization packages. All three servers are identical in this regard, supporting bare-metal hypervisors as well as OS-based virtualization without a problem.

Next: Rankings

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Rank and file

At the end of my testing, it was very clear to me that Intel's new Xeons have opened a new door of server performance. Nehalem represents a landmark shift in processing power, and all three servers demonstrated this fact with their fantastic SPECjbb2005 and STREAM 5.8 performance numbers. Regardless of the task, it will run faster on a Nehalem-based server.

The uniformly excellent performance made it very difficult to rank the three servers. In the final analysis, the differences in scores came down to minor things like hardware expandability, power consumption, and price. All of these servers are impressive performers, and none of them lacks any substantial features. All of them are great for small to medium-sized businesses, and each one's remote management is top notch. If noise is a concern, then look to the Dell. If you need room for lots of hard drives, then the Fujitsu is the one. If cost is king, HP is your choice. You won't go wrong with any of them.

Dell PowerEdge T610

Dell has always had style on its side, and the PowerEdge T610 keeps the tradition going. This stand-alone tower, which can also serve as a 5U rack server, bundles power behind a pretty face. The chassis has plenty of room for growth for any small to medium-sized business, capable of 8TB of internal storage and 96GB of DDR3 RAM. Remote management chores are handled by iDRAC6 (Integrated Dell Remote Access Controller). A nifty front-panel mini-LCD does the trick for boot-time monitoring.

Nehalem tower servers by the features

Dell PowerEdge T610

Fujitsu Primergy TX300

HP ProLiant ML350

Installed CPUs / max CPUs

2/2

2/2

2/2

Type of CPU (as tested)

Intel Xeon X5550 2.26 GHz

Intel Xeon X5550 2.26 GHz

Intel Xeon X5550 2.26 GHz

Installed RAM / max RAM

24GB/96GB

24GB/144GB

24GB/196GB

RAM type/speed?

DDR3 Registered, 1333MHz

DDR3 Registered, 1333MHz

DDR3 Registered, 1333MHz

# of RAM sockets

12 DIMM slots

18 DIMM slots

18 DIMM slots

# of PCIe slots

5 PCIs slots

7 PCIe slots

6 PCIe slots/2 PCI-X optional

# of USB ports

8 USB ports

10 USB ports

6 USB ports

Drive bay options

8 SFF or LFF

20 SFF or 8 LFF

16 SFF or 8 LFF

Disk type options (SATA/SAS/SCSI)

SAS, SATA, SSD

SAS, SATA

SAS, SATA

Controller types

SAS controller

SAS controller

SAS controller

# and type of drives installed (as tested)

4 x 73GB 15K RPM SAS

3x 450 GB 15K RPM SAS HDD

3 x 146G 10K RPM SAS

Max storage available

8TB

8TB

8TB

Front Panel LCD?

Yes

Yes

No

# and type of Ethernet ports

2 port GbE

2 port GbE

2 port GbE

Integrated management

iDRAC6

iRMC

iLO2

Power supply options

570W/870W, redundant optional

800W hot-plug standard, redundant optional

460W/750W/1200W, redundant optional

Tool less case design?

Yes

Yes

Yes

Chassis type

Tower or 5U rack

Tower or 4U rack

Tower or 5U rack

Hot-swap fans?

No, redundant fan support

Yes

No, redundant fan support

Price as tested

$7,315

$9,316

$6,560

Warranty

3 Years

3 Years

3 Years

This 11th-generation PowerEdge came to me outfitted with its pair of Xeon X5550 CPUs stashed safely underneath massive tower heat sinks and a large front-to-back air baffle. Two 90mm fans (there's room for two more) are mounted in the back of the baffle, directing air flow across the processors, RAM, and the installed hard drives. These rear-mounted fans are responsible for all cooling in the system with the exception of the fan in the power supply. As with the HP ProLiant, none of the fans are hot-swappable.

My Dell server came equipped with eight external USB 2.0 ports (six rear, two front) and five PCIe slots, two more than the HP. The Dell lacks an internal USB port for bare-metal booting from USB, a feature found in both Fujitsu's Primergy and HP's ProLiant. The interior of the chassis is cleanly laid out with all cables routed neatly and tucked away.

Dell provides two power supply options for the T610: a 570-watt or an 870-watt unit. Either power supply can be installed as a single unit or in an optional redundant configuration. Noise levels when under load were very good -- quiet enough to be deployed in a small office. Regardless of configuration, I like that the power supplies are also tool-less and can be replaced in a matter of seconds by simply releasing the locking clip and pulling the unit out.

Power consumption for the PowerEdge T610 was best of the group. At idle (meaning booted up but not under load), the T610 drew 136.6 watts, 19.8 watts less than the HP and almost 90 watts better than the Fujitsu. At 100 percent CPU utilization, the Dell still had the edge. The T610 averaged 307 watts, 15 watts less than the HP and nearly 60 watts less than the Fujitsu.

A server is not much good if it can't store data. Dell has a variety of drive and controller combinations available. My test server came configured with four 2.50-inch 73GB 15K RPM SAS hard drives in RAID 5. Other available drive options are 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch SATA II hard drives and 2.5-inch SSD (solid-state drive). A PERC6/I controller handles drive interface duties, while an optional integrated PERC6/I RAID daughter card allows for RAID levels of 0, 1, 5, 6, and 10.

Network options are pretty cut and dried with all three servers. The T610 comes with two integrated Broadcom NetXtreme II 5709c Gigabit Ethernet ports. Both ports provide failover and load balancing capabilities. Optional Gigabit and 10 Gigabit PCIe interface cards are also available.

When it comes to managing the T610, Dell has some of the coolest tools available. The Integrated Dell Remote Access Controller 6 (iDRAC6) microprocessor handles the remote management chores. I tested iDRAC6 Express, which not only provides remote power-on and management capabilities, but also crashed system recovery, firmware and driver updates, and hardware inventory. The iDRAC6 Enterprise option adds advanced features such virtual media support. This allows admins to boot the server from a CD-ROM, ISO image, or USB memory stick located on a remote desktop.

When used in conjunction with Dell's Unified System Configurator and Lifecycle Controller, iDRAC6 lets admins remotely provision and deploy bare-metal servers without any local IT support. For example, on initial power-up, the T610 with iDRAC6 can be automatically discovered by Lifecycle Controller back at the network operations center. Then, a new operating system -- be it a predefined "golden image" or a custom configuration -- can be pushed to the server using hardware drivers already resident on the iDRAC6 controller. In short, you can do a full server installation from remote, regardless of the status of the operating system, saving time and money without the need for onsite technical support.

Bottom line: The PowerEdge T610 is a great small office server that performed at the same level as its Nehalem-based brethren. It was the quietest of the three servers even during heavy CPU usage, making it a great choice when the server will share space with office workers. It doesn't have as many available drive bays as the Fujitsu and HP servers, but it still manages the same overall maximum disk storage. Remote management is solid and power consumption was best of the group.

Next: Fujitsu Primergy TX300 S5

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Fujitsu Primergy TX300 S5

When the vendor list for this roundup was finalised, I was happy to learn that I'd get a chance to check out a server from Fujitsu, a company I don't have a lot of experience with. The Primergy TX300 S5 is a fine piece of server craftsmanship. This tower, which can also be installed as a 4U rack chassis, is by far the biggest server in my review. This thing is so deep -- measuring roughly 26.5 inches front to back — it arrived on a pallet big enough for a big-screen TV. (I'm such a geek, I'd rather have the server.)

Capable of as much as 8TB of online disk space and up to 144GB of DDR3 RAM, the TX300 comes with a useful pop-out LCD for local service messages. Remote management is via Fujitsu's iRMC (integrated Remote Management Controller), which allows for remote administration regardless of system status. Like the Dell PowerEdge, my TX300 shipped with dual Xeon X5550 CPUs and 24GB of DDR3 RAM. Unlike Dell and HP, Fujitsu doesn't position its fans to move air front to back through the chassis. Instead, three 120mm fans are lined up right in the middle of the chassis and directly over the CPUs and memory banks, blowing down on the components. Unlike the others, Fujitsu's fans are hot swappable, and they seal against the chassis so that air is drawn in from the front, across the hard drives, down over the CPU and RAM, and then out through the power supplies. It's an interesting yet effective way of cooling the system.

The Primergy is loaded with USB ports. It has three front panel, four rear, and three internal USB 2.0 ports for a total of 10 — the most in this roundup. One of the internal USB ports will accept a standard memory stick to allow for bare-metal booting. It also comes with seven PCIe slots — again, the most out of the group. The TX300 is the only server in this roundup with a front panel VGA port — a nice touch.

Fujitsu offers redundant hot-swap power supplies with the TX300, but unlike Dell and HP, there is only one type: an 800-watt unit. Like the others, the power supplies snap-lock in place and can be removed without any tools. Noise levels when the TX300 was operational were on the high side when compared to the other chassis. While the Fujitsu wasn't as loud as most rack-mount servers, it was loud enough to make telephone conversations in the same room challenging whenever the fans spun up to reduce system temperature.

Power consumption with the Primergy TX300 was the worst of the three servers. Its wattage and amperage consumption were higher than the other servers across the board. With the system idling, the TX300 used 87 watts more than the PowerEdge T610 and 67.4 more than the HP. At full usage, the TX300 used 59.2 watts more than the Dell and 44.6 more than the HP.

Fujitsu's larger chassis allows for additional SFF hard drives but is still limited to 8TB of overall space. This chassis can accommodate up to sixteen 2.5-inch SFF or eight 3.5-inch LFF hard drives. A wide range of drive choices is available, including SSD, SATA, and SAS. My test server came with three 450GB 15K RPM SAS drives in RAID 5.

The Primergy server has two Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, using the Intel 82575EB chip set. Other network options are available such as two- and four-port Gigabit Ethernet adapters and two-port 10 Gigabit adapters.

Remote management chores are part of the iRMC (integrated Remote Management Controller). This is a chip-based autonomous system that functions independently of the server, providing remote control of the Primergy server regardless of status. Two versions of iRMC are available. The standard version provides access to system information, such as fans and power voltages, via a standard Web browser and the Java runtime engine, as well as the ability to set power management policies, update firmware, and handle alarms. As with other remote management tools, admins can power the system on and off and interact with the server prior to an OS loading.

Next: Nehalem tower servers: Power consumption compared

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Nehalem tower servers: Power consumption compared

Dell PowerEdge T610

Fujitsu Primergy TX300

HP ProLiant ML350

Standby (plugged in, powered off)

14.5 Watts

15.7 Watts

7.8 Watts

Idle (booted up, no load)

136.6 Watts

223.8 Watts

156.4 Watts

100% CPU utilization

307.7 Watts

366.9 Watts

322.3 Watts

The advanced version of iRMC (available via upgrade) allows for better video redirection to the remote admin without the need for the JVM, supports two simultaneous "virtual" connections to the same server, and best of all, provides virtual media capabilities. Both standard and advanced iRMC integrate seamlessly into Fujitsu's ServerView Suite management platform.

Bottom line: The Primergy TX300 is the largest server in the roundup, but boasts the most drive bays and USB ports of the group. It is also the most expensive server and has the most fan noise of the three servers tested. Remote management is great, and its performance numbers were right with the Dell and HP servers. One big negative is its power usage --- by far worst of the bunch.

HP ProLiant ML350

Answer: Death, taxes, and HP ProLiant servers. Question: What can you always count on?

The third entry in our server roundup is the 6th-generation ProLiant ML350. Available as a stand-alone tower or 5U rack server (with appropriate rack kit), the ML350 was the lowest-cost server in our group without sacrificing any features or capabilities. Like the other two servers, the ProLiant can grow to hold up to 8TB of online disk storage. It can also handle up to 196GB of DDR3 RDIMM -- the most in our group. HP's iLO2 (integrated Lights Out) remote management controller takes care of remote management.

The inside of the ProLiant is a study in simplicity. A single, clear air baffle covers the RAM and most of the massive heat-tubed CPU heat sinks. Two pairs of 90mm fans -- a pair at the rear and a pair in front of the baffle -- handle cooling chores, pulling air through the chassis front to rear. The ProLiant's fans are not hot-swappable, but they are much quieter than their Fujitsu counterparts.

Like the Fujitsu, the ML350 comes with an internal USB port for bare-metal booting. There are two USB ports on the front and two on the rear of the chassis, and one additional internal USB tape connector, for a total of six USB ports, the fewest in our group. The ProLiant motherboard has six PCIe slots; an optional configuration adds two PCI-X slots.

HP provides three power supply options for the ML350 chassis. Depending on hardware needs, you can choose from 460-, 750-, and 1,200-watt power supplies in single and redundant configurations. I was very pleased with how little noise came from the HP server, even while under load. There were times that the fans would spin up more than usual, but even then I wasn't subjected to the sound of jet engines. I could easily place this server in a common work area and not be bothered by the noise.

The ML350's power consumption was second best overall. It recorded the best score of the bunch when powered off (7.8 watts vs. Dell's 14.5 watts and Fujitsu's 15.7 watts), a dubious distinction considering that no one buys a server to plug it in and not turn it on. When running, the ML350 consumed 156.4 watts at idle and 322.3 watts with the dual Xeons maxed out, about 44 watts better than the Fujitsu but 59 watts worse than the Dell.

Like the Dell PowerEdge T610 and the Fujitsu Primergy TX300, the ProLiant can handle up to 8TB of online disk space. This chassis will accommodate as many as sixteen 2.5-inch SFF or eight 3.5-inch LFF drives, twice as many SFF as the PowerEdge but four fewer than the Primergy. The ML350 uses a SAS RAID controller interface for its drives and can connect with both SAS and SATA drives. My test unit came with three 146GB 10K RPM SAS drives in RAID 5.

Like the Dell and Fujitsu servers, the ML350 comes standard with two Gigabit Ethernet ports. HP uses the Intel 82575EB chip set for its integrated network connectivity, and optional Gigabit and 10 Gigabit PCIe adapters are available.

HP has been in the remote management business for quite some time. Its iLO (Integrated Lights-Out) feature provides secure remote access to a ProLiant server regardless of where it is located. iLO allows admins to power the server up or down, interact with the server prior to system boot-up, and access HP's new Power Regulator power management tools. With an additional license, admins can upgrade to iLO Advanced and gain the ability to install, configure, update, and troubleshoot ProLiant servers using a standard Web browser.

One of the best features of iLO Advanced is its support for virtual media. This allows admins to access files and folders on their remote desktops from the ProLiant prior to boot-up. They can update drivers and firmware on the ProLiant from their remote PC without having to physically install media in the server -- very cool.

Bottom line: Like the Dell and Fujitsu servers, the HP ProLiant blazed through the performance testing. The HP server was the low price leader in this roundup but still offered a substantial number of drive bays and USB ports, and it supports a ridiculous amount of RAM. Power consumption lagged the Dell but beat the Fujitsu. The ProLiant is also quiet, if not as quiet as the Dell, and it comes with excellent remote management.

Read more reviews at Computerworld.