What's the best blade server?

Summary:Blade servers were once the saviours of the datacentre. Expandability was king. But do blade servers still make sense today? We find out if they're still worth it.

HP BladeSystem

(Credit: HP)

This is one of the biggest stand-alone (non-rack-mountable) servers we have seen. Big, black, bold and with a price tag to match. The unit carries the moniker HP BladeSystem c3000 Enclosure Tower. In reality, HP has come up with an ingenious way of taking a 6RU server, mounting it vertically, attaching a housing and some skateboard wheels and turning it into a pedestal server.

The device itself can house eight blade servers and includes a modular I/O slot. The test unit we received included a neat pop-out 3-inch colour LCD management display, a DB9M serial console port and USB port, an in-built DVD RW drive, as well as a recessed reset button and three status LEDs.

Both the sides of the unit and its base are solid. The enclosures dimensions are a whopping 270mm wide by 780mm deep by 540mm high (including the wheels).

At the rear of the machine are four modular bays, two of which (on our unit) were populated with fibre modules. There are also two smaller modular bays, one of which was populated with an RJ45 connected integrated lights out (iLO) and UID module.

The majority of the real estate of this device is consumed with blower modules. These are not run-of-the-mill fans, but are very definitely blowers. When this server is powered up, the blowers immediately go to their maximum cycle. We are surprised that HP's design engineers didn't fit the wheels with ceramic disc brakes, because these blowers are not far off being jet turbines — and there are six of them installed. There are also six hot-swappable redundant power supply units, each with its own fan. The downside to all this air management is the noise — even when idling this thing emits 72dBA on our sound meter. During start-up it recorded levels closer to 97dBA.

The test unit was supplied with four blades — two BL460 G6s and two BL490c G6s. The 460s each included two 2.5-inch 72GB 10k SAS hard drives, which can be removed from the front of the blade without needing tools, while the 490s are diskless.

Each blade server measures 180(H)x50(W)x485(D)mm. Remote access and management is possible, alternatively operators can use a dongle to connect to each blade for direct access. The HP dongle has a standard 15-pin monitor connector, two USB connectors and one DB9M serial connector. We found that the dongle didn't latch on to the blade very well, although we would expect most administrators would leave the noise in the data room and access the servers remotely. We also found that if the dongle was plugged into the blade that was occupying slot 5 it became impossible to swing the 3-inch management screen flat against the front of the enclosure. The front of each blade also has four LED indicators for UID, disk, flex 1 and 2 and power, and there is also a power button with an integrated LED.

The BL490c G6 is perfect for virtualisation projects, two great benefits are the amount of memory that can be installed, 18 DIMM slots in a half-height server blade and the embedded Flex-10 capable controllers offer up to 8 integrated FlexNICs.

HP's Virtual Connect technology ends the switch versus pass-through debate by virtualising the server edge — where your server blades connect to your Local Area Network (LAN) and your SAN. Furthermore, HP states that its Virtual Connect Flex-10 provides for up to four times the number of supported NICs per server without increasing the number of switches required to connect them. Each physical NIC can be configured from 100MB up to 10GB depending on application needs. Administrators can add or replace a server blade in a matter of minutes. It also relieves LAN and SAN administrators of the complex choreography needed to follow the moving server blade, and to manage countless connections at the server edge.

This server is very well engineered. Of particular note is the pop-out 3-inch LCD management screen controlled by using just five buttons. The fact that it is a pedestal system is a little strange, we could not imagine too many users opting for this configuration unless it was used in the development, testing or a pre-staging environment. Primarily due to the amount of noise generated by the unit, it should be locked up in a computer room or datacentre where racks are usually dominant.

The cost of this unit (test configuration) was almost $100k; however, a large chunk of this includes the advanced networking modules. If you are into powerful virtualised environments, over time the savings in labour costs may outweigh the extra costs of the technology. Three years on-site parts and labour warranty is excellent and rarely seen these days.

The bottom line Very well engineered, very flexible, unique and good management features.
Vendor HP
Product HP BladeSystem c3000 Enclosure (AU$12,000 – AU$15,000)
HP BLc Virtual Connect 4GB FC Opt Kit (AU$18,975)
HP BLc VC Flex-10 Enet Module Opt (AU$24,500)
HP ProLiant BL460c Generation 6 Server Blade x2 (AU$4950 – AU$8000 excluding accessories)
HP ProLiant BL490c Generation 6 Server Blade x2 (AU$7700 – AU$12,000 excluding accessories)
Price of unit tested RRP: AU$96,320
Warranty and support Three years parts; three years labour; three years on-site
Support method: telephone
The good Very modular
Innovative design
Good to see a pedestal blade server
The bad Very large
Blade module 5 dongle interferes with 3-inch management display

Topics: Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, Servers, Tech & Work

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