New Dell PowerEdge: More power, deeper management

First look: 12-gen, 2U Dell PowerEdge R720xd pairs hardware heft with first-rate remote management tools

The Dell PowerEdge R720xd is one of the first offerings in Dell's new, 12th-generation PowerEdge server lineup. It's basically an expanded version of the PowerEdge 720 and oriented toward fast, well-managed file, virtualization, and storage workloads. That means the box has a distinguished pedigree to live up to, and after putting the R720xd through its paces, I'm sure its lineage won't be disappointed.

The R720xd's hardware muscle ups the performance bar from its 11-gen siblings -- for example, delivering 53 percent more OLTP performance than the previous-gen R710. Aside from the obligatory boost in horsepower, it's clear that Dell has concentrated much of its design efforts on remote server management.

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I really liked the iDRAC7/LC combination (long form: the Dell Integrated Remote Access Controller v7 and the Dell Lifecycle Controller). The agent-less feature is nice, and it isn't tied to a single OS or third-party management platform. You can go ahead and use Dell's OpenManage or similar platforms from CA, HP, IBM, or Microsoft. The iDRAC7/LC combo is also a standard feature on all Dell 12G machines, so there's only one learning curve for the entire line. I wasn't able to test the long-term lifecycle or tracking features, but discovery was fast, and the setup and configuration wizards were very easy.

I would've liked to see auto-tuning on this box, but it's not supported. Neither is a native GPU, and the system has only a 16MB video subsystem; out of the box, this is not a higher-end VDI or RDS (Remote Desktop Services) machine capable of supporting the likes of Windows Server 2008 R2's RemoteFX feature. Then again, if Microsoft and the popular video card vendors ever get their act together on the server front, you will be able to update the box via PCIe.

Bottom line: The PowerEdge R720xd is a fast and highly expandable general-purpose server that has enough storage to handle even storage-intensive workloads, such as SharePoint or Exchange, without the need for an external storage boost. The out-of-the-box server management tools are excellent, and if you upgrade to OpenManage Enterprise it only gets better. A basic PowerEdge R720xd starts at $2,738, but my heavyweight test configuration nets out at $14,522.

Beefy and expandable
The R720xd's specs are impressive. Broad strokes: My test machine came equipped with dual Intel Xeon E5-2660 Sandy Bridge CPUs, each with eight cores running at 2.2GHz, 64GB of RAM (expandable up to 768GB via 24 DIMM slots), and six PCIe expansion slots.

I also had six Western Digital 300GB 10,000-rpm SAS drives and one preconfigured virtual drive. These drives are hot-swappable and come with a host of options, including 2.5- or 3.5-inch form factors, between 7,500- and 15,000-rpm speeds, or you can hit even higher speeds by choosing SSD drives, which should be available by the time you read this. Self-encrypting drives weren't included on my test box but are available for the security geeks in the crowd.

My disks were managed by Dell's integrated PERC 710 RAID controller; again, you can opt for either the H310 or the H710P versions depending on your budget or performance needs. Last, you have two drive bay configurations available, either 26 2.5-inch (included on my machine) or 12 3.5-inch with another pair of 2.5-inchers thrown in. All that nets out to a maximum of 38TB of possible storage on each box.

On the comms side, the iDRAC7 controller allows for in-band and out-of-band management via a dedicated rear port. There's the traditional serial port, a single front-mounted USB port, dual VGA video ports front and back, and network interfaces, of course. My test system came with a quad Intel 4P I350t gigabit NIC, while the R720xd can also support a quad NIC from Broadcom or a dual 10Gb/dual 1Gb NIC, either from Intel or Broadcom. The former supports FCoE on the 10Gb ports, while the latter has TOE and iSCSI offload enabled on its 10Gb ports. Wish I could have that on my quad-gig NIC, but that's life.

Dell also offers a load of FC options from Brocade, Emulex, and QLogic. The base NIC options are available via dedicated daughtercards, so your six PCIe slots are left open. The test machine came equipped with dual and hot-swappable 750-watt power supplies, though you can opt for 495- or 1,100-watt high-efficiency versions as well.

My machine booted into Windows Server 2008R2 SP1, but you can ask for Microsoft Small Business Server 2011, Suse Linux Enterprise Server, or Red Hat Linux Enterprise. You can install these yourself or let Dell do it with the appropriate keys. Dell also supports hypervisors from Citrix, VMware, and Microsoft.

Rockin' remote management
The rest of the machine was a good rack citizen with front-mount LCD diagnostics and a ReadyRails tool-less rack mounting system that slid easily into my four-post test rack. There's also a cool-looking silver front-mount crossbar that I didn't bother installing because I'm plagued with laziness. The interior is well laid out with port controls mostly located in the rear and an entire bank of fans situated up front and pouring into a distribution system sitting directly over the dual CPUs.

Everything is modular, down to the ability to remove the entire fan assembly or individual fans. The airflow assembly pops out so easily I was actually a little worried, though it's solid enough with the server cover in place. And, yeah, the noise level on this baby means it's a rack-only machine -- preferably a rack with a door.

Finally, a nifty resource for hardware management is Dell's Quick Resource Locator. This amounts to a QRL code located on the top of the box. Scan it with your smartphone like you would a downloaded boarding pass, and you'll be supplied with links to management resources specific to that machine model. You'll find information on system guts, searchable online manuals, and slick videos that guide you through installation and various tasks -- a nice touch.

Dig some more and there's LCD diagnostic information and a detailed electrical overview. If that doesn't help, the QRL knows the box's specific service tag, so you can check that particular machine's hardware config and warranty information. If all else fails, this support system lets you contact Dell directly, while providing the service technician with detailed information on the machine you're calling about.

The R720xd's remote server management capabilities come by way of Dell's new remote access controller (the vampirish-sounding iDRAC7) and Dell's Lifecycle Controller (LC), which will be known to previous Dell server customers as the Unified Server Configurator, as well as Dell's OpenManage server management platform. That last has grown into an extensive systems management platform, so I'm concentrating on the embedded iDRAC7 and LC combination in this review.

The iDRAC7 and LC pairing gives administrators real in-depth device management, and it does so either in-band or out-of-band and using agent-less technology. Enter the iDRAC/LC manager during boot and you'll see you can use the system to manage NIC configuration and failover, network speed, IP settings (IPv4 and IPv6), IPMI settings and basic permissions, VLAN IDs, and more.

There are also a variety of component alert options, such as NIC-by-NIC alerts and traps. There are options to configure virtual media, vFlash media, power and thermal settings, and even location settings: IDs for data center, rack, rack slot, and so on. You can manage either self-encrypting drives or enable BitLocker by managing TPM (Trusted Platform Module). There's a good deal more, but I'm running out of wind.

Accessing the LC manually is a matter of interrupting the boot process. However, you can also access a server's LC using standard WSMan (Web Services Management) commands from either the Windows or Linux command line. You can even find premade WSMan scripts for common management tasks off the Dell Tech Center.

Dell supports updates to the LC platform via a wizard that can be launched either from the individual server's LC or from a management console. Finally, a critical utility is the Rollback wizard, which lets you bring the system back to a safe state from either a BIOS or firmware upgrade.

This story, "New Dell PowerEdge: More power, deeper management," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in computer hardware, servers, and the data center at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.