Despite the fact that Intel has the server market practically sown up (in the x86 space), the Pentium 4 architecture is inefficient and inelegant. So, when it came to buying a pair of new servers for infrastructure services, I decided to investigate the AMD-based offerings. From the Tier 1 vendors Dell, IBM, and HP all now have Opteron-based offerings.
I soon discounted HP’s offerings, not only from a moral point of view regarding their recent shenanigans but because all of their Opteron offerings are based around nVidia’s nForce core logic chipset – which, despite nVidia’s hyperbole, is much more of a enthusiast/workstation solution than anything suited to a server… especially if you’re hoping to run Linux on it.
HP and IBM hit approximately the same price-point: about £5000 for two identically configured machines (2 x Dual-core 2GHz processors with 4Gb memory, 2 x SAS 147Gb disks) – whereas Dell came in at half this price! Apparently, as Dell’s first Opteron-based server offering, they’re really trying to break into the market here and so are doing some impressive discounts.
Delivery took about three weeks, which is a little long for this class of machine – but it is apparently part of one of the first batches to be sent out… the first week of the lead-time was probably because it wasn’t actually available yet!
The hardware is very impressive: solidly built, cleanly laid-out inside. It’s the little things you notice: the shroud over the CPUs and memory has little windows in it so you can instantly see which DIMM banks are populated. The latch which locks the top-panel in place feels solid. The minimal front panel is decently laid out. There are little bugbears too, however: the system has no PS/2 ports, so a USB keyboard is required. The front lock-bar covers all ports and controls, leaving only the status lights visible… it’d be nice if there was some way (possibly via a second locking hatch) to attach a USB keyboard with the bar still in place. It’s interesting to note that the two SAS disks are mounted upside-down in the chassis, but it’s a shame that they aren’t externally accessible or hot-swappable.
The machine contains eight 40mm fans: six before the CPU cowl and two on the (non-redundant) PSU. This means that, whilst the machine is subjectively loud, it’s certainly not an ear- (and concentration-) shattering screamer as the SuperMicro system was. Infact, it’s probably not that much louder than other rack-mounted 1U servers… it’s just a much higher pitch, and therefore that much harder to ignore.
The Dell BIOS is leagues ahead of lower-tier vendors such as SuperMicro as well. Whereas the SuperMicro IPMI option requires a DOS boot-disk to reconfigure the IP address it listens on, on the Dell it’s fully configurable from ROM post-POST.
I’ll cover software later, but suffice to say every element of the system (including the Fusion/MPT-based SAS controller) works just fine with linux. Dell servers are capable of performing firmware updates directly from Linux – a great feature that no other vendor seems to have embraced. Unfortunately, Dell don’t seem to have yet written the ancillary services – the IMPI controller, for example, is not supported by any of their existing management utilities. Dell are looking into this for me as we speak, and I’ll update this article once I hear more.
(Which brings me to one final note: The Dell business support service is really rather good: When I called, the phone was answered within a couple of rings, I was put through to the right department immediately, and the guy I spoke to seemed pretty knowledgeable. Even from the start of the call, they seemed more interested in helping than ascertaining purchase details and, even though the eventual conclusion was that the software was missing from the system CD and didn’t seem to be available yet, I did come away feeling more satisfied than frustrated.
- No PS/2 ports
- No printed documentation, other than a rack-installation guide. And IPMI/BMC quick-start on paper would have been nice
- Great value for what you get
- Good quality support
- Well-constructed hardware
- Fast and capable
- Not too loud…
- … but still loud
- Only space for two disks, and these aren’t accessible without opening the chassis
- The supporting software isn’t available yet!