HP c3000 BladeSystem strikes with precision

Compact and powerful system stands tall above traditional servers and storage devices

I've never visited your server room, but I'd wager that behind every rack resides a cobweb of cables. This tangled mass isn't just unsightly; it's indicative of how IT admins are stretching the architectural limits of conventional, stand-alone servers and storage devices and facing more complicated troubleshooting and maintenance activities.

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By gradually replacing standard servers with blade systems, large datacenters can achieve easier and more effective management, all the while reducing power and cooling costs. Small datacenters have similar needs for more power-efficient, compact systems, not to mention less cluttered connections between servers and storage devices, and they could benefit from the same remedy. Until recently, though, vendors were targeting blade systems at more demanding requirements.

That's all changing. Vendors such as Sun have primed these trim servers for entry-level to midsize requirements, and attached to them a more affordable price. Joining the ranks of these lean machines is HP's BladeSystem c3000.

Unleashed last September, BladeSystem c3000 lets you pack as many as eight half-size blades into just 6U. Moreover, the unit can be loaded with serious processing power, capacious storage devices, and first-class management tools that defy alternative standalone products. It's a powerful, reliable, easy-to-manage machine. In fact, after using the BladeSystem c3000 for several weeks (check out my first impressions and photos here and here), I've become addicted.

Meet Shorty
If you have never handled a blade system, just unpacking it can be an educational -- and even fun-filled -- experience. Out of its crate, the c3000 can be stripped down to a bare chassis, which I did not only out of curiosity, but also to get its weight to a more manageable level.

Given its contained dimensions, it’s no surprise that HP nicknamed the c3000 "Shorty." Despite its small form factor, the unit hosts eight blade slots in the front for servers or storage devices, plus a DVD drive and a management console. The console has a small, slick LCD screen that you can make disappear in its own slit when not in use. In the back of the c3000, you can mount as many as six fans, six power-supply modules, and four switches that offer Ethernet, Fibre Channel, and InfiniBand connectivity.

All of the aforementioned components slide in and out easily without the need to power off the chassis. The c3000's well-designed layout also helps admins minimize cable cluttering. Components with external connections are located along the perimeter of the chassis so that their cables can be neatly routed out of the way.

In fact, two of the four slots for switches are located near the top edge of the machine; the other two are situated at the bottom edge of the enclosure. Similarly, the six power supply sockets are equally spaced along the left and right edges.

My evaluation unit mounted two server blades running Windows Server 2003 plus a third blade with Windows Storage Server 2003. WSS 2003 is Microsoft's unified storage solution that enables provisioning of storage as network shares and iSCSI volumes.

The WSS 2003 blade had two 146GB SAS drives on board, but it also controlled the additional capacity of HP's StorageWorks All-in-One (AiO) SB600c, essentially a storage blade that packs six small-form-factor SAS drives of 146GB each.

The SB600c is essentially a blade-oriented version of HP's StorageWorks AiO 600 storage system, which I looked at in late 2006. Although I didn't have the two systems side by side as when I tested the c3000, I feel comfortable saying that the blade version has nothing to envy in its nonblade sibling: Performance, ease of use, and manageability are comparable -- if not better.

Strong connections
Worth noting is how a storage blade is essentially direct-attached to a server blade, even though there are no cables connecting the two. There is, however, an invisible connection running via the c3000 midplane that connects "partner" devices such as a server and a storage blade.

To create that connection, the two blades simply have to occupy adjacent sockets -- effective and easy. It's also fast: Running Iometer between the AiO server and the storage blade, I measured a transfer rate of around 550MBps, which is consistent with the results measured on, for example, a local drive.

Although I was using the space-demanding dual-parity RAID 6 on the unit, there was more than half a terabyte of storage available for my applications. A similar configuration would gobble half a 3U enclosure in a comparable, traditional storage device, but it occupies only a half-size blade socket on the c3000.

Of course, a small-form-factor drive, capacity-wise, can’t compete with a large 3.5 SATA drives. Customers with substantial storage requirements should consider connecting external storage units to the blade system using one of the supported protocols: The c3000 can easily connect to outside enclosures using iSCSI, FC, or InfiniBand.

Using the LTO3 tape blade mounted on my evaluation units was equally easy and cable free. Similar to the AiO storage blade, the tape blade partners with adjacent servers. I only had to start the HP backup application, Data Protector Express, from one of my servers and the tape began rolling with my data.

Internal Ethernet connectivity is another service that the c3000 chassis handles sans cables. In fact, every server on my system had two data NICs paired for performance and resiliency, plus a third NIC for ILO (integrated lights out) control -- yet nary a physical cable was needed to connect each machine to my GbE switch blade. The systems can mount three additional switches to create resilient connections to two distinct networks, which should be adequate for most installations.

The c3000 can also mount Virtual Connect switches, which isolate networks and storage devices from changes to the server’s host bus adapters. (I didn’t have the VC units installed on my test system.) Notably, HP released additional software in November to extend that flexibility across multiple chassis.

Keeping an eye on the meter
The c3000 deploys the small form factor, 2.5-inch disk drives not just on the storage blade but on every blade server. Thanks to the drives' lower power requirements, this approach should save some energy and produce less heat while delivering the same performance of larger drives.

HP ships some slick management tools with the system, such as Onboard Administrator, which offers a comprehensive administrative console from which you can manage all the components installed in the c3000, including blades, fans, and power supplies.

The app can also manage multiple blade systems from the same pane of glass, which makes for easy and efficient administration. For example, using OA, you can set up configurations to ensure the system can survive the failure of one or more fans or to balance power supply across different sources.

In addition, admins can use Onboard Administrator to keep an eye on how much energy the whole system or each single blade is using. The temptation to hook up the machine to my hardware meter, Watts up Pro, and check the accuracy of those metrics was too strong to resist.

Power check
After adjusting the frequency of the samples to 5 minutes -- the same interval used by Onboard Administrator -- the two measurements didn’t fall too far apart. According to my tests, the c3000 absorbs around 700 watts when idle. But how does that compare to a mix of traditional servers and storage devices?

To measure that, I put together a similar configuration using conventional devices. First I lined up three 1U, single processor, dual-power supply HP ProLiant DL360 servers with two SCSI drives each. To that, I added an iSCSI storage enclosure with redundant power supply and fans and six SAS drives, along with an LTO 3 stand-alone tape and a Gigabit Ethernet switch.

Then I measured the power used by that setup when idle. My meter showed the conventional system using 772 watts, which translates into a significant 9 percent less power gulped by the blade system and possible into a desirable discount on your electric bill.

This doesn’t happen often, but at the end of my evaluation of the c3000, I can’t find any reason not to recommend it. After getting accustomed to the powerful management tools and the smooth ride offered by Shorty, getting back to stand-alone servers and storage devices is going back from driving a sleek sports car to a bumpy car with only rudimentary, basic gauges on the dashboard.

At about $3,000 -- the cost of one server blade plus software -- the price tag is comparable to that of a stand-alone server. However, the c3000 chassis adds about $5,000 to that amount, and it creates an incentive to purchase more units from the same vendor.

However, those price considerations are amply offset by the c3000's compact footprint, more efficient power and cooling, speed, and ultimately less costly administration. The ability to handle network and storage connections sans a jungle of cables not only means a tidier server rack; it enables hands-off, remote administration tasks that would be impossible otherwise.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (20.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Availability (25.0%)
Serviceability (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
HP BladeSystem c3000 9.0 9.0 10.0 9.0 10.0 10.0 9.5
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