InfoWorld review: Dell, HP, and Lenovo rack servers

Dual-processor Nehalem Xeon rack servers sport sizzling performance, excellent serviceability, and variations in price and power efficiency

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The greatest variation in these systems is how they notify admins of defective components. Only the Dell PowerEdge R710 has a front-panel LCD (limited to one line measuring roughly 1.25 inches in length) that shows error codes. It is surrounded by small buttons that let you traverse a tiny menu of admin items on the LCD panel. The Lenovo makes original use of system-warning lights. If one of these lights should flash, the admin slides out a 3.5-by-1.5-inch panel that contains a two-digit display and a series of tiny LEDs. The LED corresponding to the specific component lights up when a problem occurs, and the error code appears in the two-digit display.

I found this design awkward to use and wondered whether a system at the top of a rack could be diagnosed without forcing an admin to get a ladder to read the slide-out panel. Lenovo points out that this approach provides great specificity to service personnel who can immediately swap out the defective part. For that purpose, I prefer HP's approach, which has the same component-warning LEDs directly on the front bezel. There is a light for every processor, DIMM, disk, power supply, and fan. One scan of a whole rack of servers can tell you if any of them has a defective component. For purposes of such quick scans, HP's approach is easier than even the Dell LCD panel.

Oddly, the Lenovo's start/stop button is embedded in the side of the diagnostic panel. This gives it a distinctively mushy feel, which wouldn't be worth a comment except for the Lenovo's very long delay in starting up. On the Dell and HP, you can start the system seconds after you plug the server into the power outlet. On the Lenovo, the wait is much longer; it was hard to time exactly, but because it went far past the industry standard, the temptation was to think the machine was DOA. Lenovo knows about the frustration this delay causes and will fix it in a future release.

A final point before we look at benchmarks is that the Dell server, surprisingly, did not come with redundant power supplies. On both the Lenovo and HP models, dual power supplies is the standard delivery model. On the Dell, the second power supply has to be specifically ordered -- it's not the default. IT sites considering the R710 should add the cost of this power supply when comparing prices.

The test results

The comparison table shows three performance benchmarks. Taking these in reverse order: The VMmark benchmark determines how good the system is at supporting virtualization. This is a complex benchmark (downloadable from VMware at no cost) that requires the use of multiple systems and the expertise of performance engineers. Because of this, InfoWorld relies on the vendors' test results, which are examined and posted by VMware. These results were obtained on machines with slightly different configurations than those I looked at -- namely, they all had 96GB of RAM. Lenovo does not run the VMmark benchmark, so we used the result for the IBM System x3560 M2, which, as mentioned previously, is the Lenovo's mechanical and electrical clone. The VMmark results show essential parity between the three models (less than 2 percent variation from top to bottom scores). This is a particularly good result for the Lenovo machine, as it uses a slower processor.

The SPECjbb 2005 benchmark (which can be purchased from builds data warehouses in RAM and does a series of analysis on the records. It primarily measures the performance of Java business operations and memory access speeds. In this test, the Dell and HP were essentially tied, while the Lenovo lagged, primarily due to its slower but less expensive processor.

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