The InfoWorld Westmere blade server shoot-out

Intel's Xeon 5600 -- code-named Westmere -- was just announced, but InfoWorld already has deep benchmarking results on Westmere blade servers from Dell, HP, and IBM

On March 16, Intel introduced its new Xeon 5600 series, code-named Westmere, which offers a dramatic performance leap over the year-old Xeon 5500 series known as Nehalem-EP. Today, the InfoWorld Test Center debuts an in-depth comparative review of three, brand-new Westmere blade servers from the three leading server manufacturers: the Dell PowerEdge M1000e, the HP BladeSystem c7000, and the IBM BladeCenter H.

No effort was spared in procuring these three powerful systems, which required weeks to review and benchmark -- in advance of the official Westmere introduction -- using a virtualization-based performance test suite created by InfoWorld contributing editor Paul Venezia. The new speed tests were essential because it was clear the previous tests would prove insufficiently challenging for these brawny blades. The VMware-based workload was carefully designed to emulate modern, real-world, Web application usage.

[ See InfoWorld's 2010 blade shoot-out with the top blade servers from Dell, HP, and IBM, all outfitted with Intel's brand-spanking-new Westmere chip. ]

The three systems are almost purpose-built for virtualization. All have the equivalent of 10Gb/s switches built into their chassis, providing plenty of bandwidth for a host of virtual machines. Each monster box was configured with four, 6-core Westmere CPUs (two CPUs per blade) for a total of 24 cores per machine, with at least 24GB of RAM in each blade providing plenty of headroom for the four Apache Web servers and two MySQL databases shouldering the load.

With 6 instead of 4 cores and a 50 percent larger L3 cache, Westmere merely matches the performance of Nehalem-EP when running 12 or fewer processes simultaneously. But Westmere blows past Nehalem when the number of processes climbs higher, as they would in a server running many virtual machines. In a battery of 96-process threading tests, a Westmere-based reference system Venezia tested completed the work in 60 percent of the time of the Nehalem-EP system he used as a control.

The performance boost with encryption was even more impressive. A new AES encryption engine helps Westmere deliver a 400 percent speed improvement in encryption operations over Nehalem -- enough to make whole-disk encryption almost unnoticeable. That could make Westmere systems particularly attractive to businesses that require PCI compliance or other stringent security measures.

As is often the case with first-generation machines that use a new chip, the performance deltas among the Dell PowerEdge M1000e, HP BladeSystem c7000, and IBM BladeCenter H blade systems were slight. Differences in cost and manageability led the InfoWorld Test Center to pick a winning blade system nonetheless, but in the real world, businesses in the market for this class of system will probably make their selection based on the vendor with which they already have the best relationship.

Small and midsize businesses have always been the target market for blade servers. With the Dell PowerEdge M1000e, HP BladeSystem c7000, and IBM BladeCenter H, that's still true, although the high performance of these systems combined with low power consumption and extreme space efficiency could also appeal to some larger enterprises, particualrly for branch offices.

At the very least, these Westmere blades are yet another indication of the narrowing gap between the technology available to large and small businesses. Invest in one of these babies, and you're dangerous.

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