New PowerEdge packs punch

Ninth-generation Dell server steps up the speed, storage, and serviceability

Dell’s PowerEdge server line is nearly a decade old, and the newest examples bear little more than a passing resemblance to their ancestors. The Dell PowerEdge 2950 I’ve been running in my lab presents a sleek, spare, and completely tool-less chassis; it also packs a bigger punch than its predecessors.

This generation overcomes more than a few shortcomings common to the PowerEdge line, at least in the 2U, dual-processor rack-mount products such as the 2950. The new crop is much quieter than earlier models and easier to open and service. As for the internals, the highlights are new CPUs, SAS storage options, and stronger remote management capabilities.

The new PowerEdges leave straight SCSI drives behind, opting for either 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch SAS drives in capacities of as much as 300GB, or SATA disks as large as 500GB. With a choice of four, six, or eight hot-swap bays depending on drive size, this equals 1.8TB to 2.5TB in raw storage per server. Driving all that disk is either a non-RAID SAS controller or the new PERC (PowerEdge Expandable RAID Controller) 5/i SAS RAID controller. A slim-line DVD-ROM and a floppy drive are also included.

On the other side of the I/O channel is the dual Broadcom NetXtreme II Gigabit NICs with TOE (TCP Offload Engine). Right in the middle are eight DIMM sockets, handling as much as 32GB of RAM and providing spare banks to handle a RAM failure. The power supplies are 750 watts each.

The 2950 I was shipped came with 4GB of RAM, four 15,000-rpm 72GB SAS drives with the PERC 5/i, and two dual-core 3.0GHz Intel Xeon EM64T (aka Woodcrest) CPUs. Along with support for a 1,333MHz front-side bus, these CPUs have 4MB of L2 cache on die, and the snappy performance shows it.

Inside the box

When I first fired up the PowerEdge 2950, it wouldn’t boot. Lacking even a POST screen, the handy LCD display on the front signaled an error with one of the CPUs. I popped the top to see whether anything had unseated during shipping. The interior of the 2950 is nicely organized, lacking in large baffles, and sporting surprisingly few fans. All of the components are easily accessible and even color-coded. Orange handles signify parts that are hot-swappable, such as the fans, and blue handles denote those that are not.

After checking the RAM, I pulled out the fan sets and then the CPU heat sinks. The heat sinks are constructed in such a way as to fit together like puzzle pieces, with the main cooling fans blowing right across the fins. Removing and reseating the fans, heat sinks, and processors took only a few minutes, although I wasn’t so enamored with the cover-locking mechanism on the top of the case, which doesn’t work as well as a similar setup found in Hewlett-Packard’s ProLiant DL products. In any event, reseating the CPUs did the trick; the 2950 fired right up. Aside from this initial hurdle, the 2950 has performed flawlessly in the lab in the weeks since.

Longtime users of Dell servers can attest that the older models — particularly the seventh generation — were quite loud, even under little or no load. Dell eventually released firmware updates that brought the fan speed down to limit the noise. The 2950 doesn’t suffer from this particular affliction, and it fit into the overall hum of the lab well. The small number of fans and the new case layout helps significantly.

PERC, DRAC, and perk

I began my testing by comparing the performance of the 2950 against a Dell PowerEdge 2800 armed with two single-core 3.6GHz EM64T CPUs and 4GB of RAM. All tests were conducted on RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) 4, Update 4, because the hardware in the 2950 is not supported by older versions.

The 2950 easily bested the 2800, showing a performance increase of 20 percent in static page requests per second as measured by the ab benchmarking tool against a static page that was 18KB in size. I then ran the MySQL benchmarking suite against both servers from a third lab server and found the results were even more in favor of the 2950, which showed a gain of nearly 30 percent over the 2800 across all tests, finishing in 1,068 seconds. The CPU utilization was nearly identical in both servers.

I also ran Iometer disk I/O benchmarks to gauge the performance of the SAS drives and RAID controller. Although the tests showed that the PERC 5/i running a four-disk RAID5 array in the 2950 was faster than the similarly built Ultra320 SCSI array in the 2800, I encountered some problems when running the benchmarks that triggered bus resets in the SAS driver under RHEL 4, so the numbers aren’t definitive. I’ve experienced no such problems under Windows with the Dell driver set, which leads me to believe the glitch was most likely a driver issue with the new PERC.

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On the management side, the 2950 offers the DRAC (Dell Remote Access Card) 5. Now combining the functions of prior DRACs and the BMC (Baseboard Management Card), DRAC 5 offers IPMI 2.0 support, a Web interface that allows admins to power the system on or off remotely, and virtual media and console support. This new DRAC is much more informative and useful than its predecessor.

It isn’t surprising that the next generation of server products from Dell offers more performance for similar money, but the array of updates in this generation is worth noting, from the SAS and SATA disk options to the updated PERC RAID controller, refreshed DRAC, and support for the newest Intel chips. It’s a solid server that improves on a long heritage.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Serviceability (10.0%)
Availability (25.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Dell PowerEdge 2950 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.5