Four mid-range servers compared

What's the best mid-range server on the market? We put machines from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Lenovo through their paces in our labs.
Written by Michael Palamountain, Contributor

Any decent mid-range server will be highly expandable. This means lots of empty memory and PCIe slots, some empty drive bays and hopefully room for another processor. The golden rule here is: be prepared to expand, but don't assume you will.

There is no need to buy something that is beyond your current needs. Computer equipment depreciates far too quickly. The flexible design of many of today's servers is the real difference between machines. It's as much about the optional expansion as it is about the machine's ultimate performance on the day it arrives.

How we tested
Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Enterprise R2 is pre-installed in preparation for benchmarking. Test software used is Cinebench 9.5 and Intel Sungard 2.5; these tests assess raw processor power and are able to take advantage of multiple CPU cores and threads.

Power consumption is also measured. The machine is assessed for build quality and feature set. Redundant systems, the ability to hot swap parts and general ease of maintenance are also looked for. Expansion options for drives, cards, RAM and processors are critical.

One thing you might note about all the servers currently being tested is that they all use SAS hard drives. SAS drives have higher rotational speeds than SATA drives, which is supposed to translate into better data transfer speeds, but in practice the improvement is not as stunning as one might expect. SAS drives also demonstrate better error checking and reporting.

However, the question for an administrator must be: is it better to have slightly improved performance and reliability, or is it better to buy three or four SATA drives for the same price as one SAS device?

A bank of SATA drives configured to RAID 60 should provide great reliability and cost about the same as twin SAS drives in RAID 1 or RAID 0. SATA drives can also have much higher capacities than current SAS drives. Obviously a bank of SATA drives takes more energy than one or two SAS drives, but it also has a correspondingly higher data capacity. SAS may be better, but it is hard to comprehend the extraordinary prices they command. Market forces clearly still count for much more than technological advancement.

About the author
Michael Palamountain is employed by Enex TestLab, an independent global testing organisation, founded in 1989 and is based at RMIT University in Melbourne Australia. Enex comprises eight business divisions each focused on different verticals all revolving around independent testing and expert consultancy from software and systems testing through to usability and gaming. The TestLab has been creating content for ZDNet and its affiliates for over 17 years.

(Credit: Dell)

Dell PowerEdge R710

At the time of writing, there happened to be three Dell R710s residing at the Enex TestLab. With three different configurations on each, it becomes abundantly clear how much performance can be improved by upgrading CPUs or adding a little more RAM. Dell's website allows you to check prices for all its available configurations, so it's really worthwhile researching this site. Experiment with the different features your budget might allow for, before doing a price check between vendors.

The Dell PowerEdge R710 is a 2RU machine with plenty of room to expand. Inside it has space for two full-size PCIe x4 and PCIe x8 cards (on top of the RAID card already present). The machine we tested had six 3.5-inch drive bays, but eight 2.5-inch bays are also possible. The inside of the box is really roomy and neat. Cables are kept under strict control, so that are quite unobtrusive. This degree of organisation is about much more than appearances. Messy cables can easily interfere with access to components during maintenance and also commonly interfere with airflow.

Airflow through the R710 is maintained by a bank of five fans stretching across the entire breadth of the unit, right behind the drive bays. Additionally, each of the two removable power supplies have a dedicated internal fan. The spacing of the main array of fans suggests that things could get nasty if the middle fan was to fail. With the middle fan gone, we'd be nervous that only a poor flow of air from the flanking fans would remain for all of the CPUs. Dell maintains this fan is used primarily for I/O hub cooling though, and is not the worst case fan fail for CPU; indeed, in case of worst case failure, it claims the server will meet "Thermal Profile A".

For this review, Dell provided the TestLab with a very well-endowed machine. It boasted dual-quad-core 2.93GHz X5570 CPUs, 24GB RAM and twin 73GB Seagate Savvio 15K RPM SAS hard drives. This is nearing the machine's CPU capacity, but there is plenty of room for expansion otherwise. The maximum RAM capacity for the 18 available slots is a massive 144GB (8GB per slot) and it can take up to six 3.5-inch terabyte hard drives. The impressive RAM and storage capacity makes this a great host for virtualisation scenarios such as supporting large numbers of thin clients.

A separate management port supplements the four gigabit Ethernet ports. Management software is based on reliable Symantec Management Platform technology (formerly by Altiris). The usual Dell LCD status display can be found on the front panel; connected to an internal SD card (which is actually used by an embedded hypervisor). The R710 can be supplied with hypervisors from Microsoft, VMware or Citrix as required. Integrated backup and recovery software can also be pre-installed.

As mentioned earlier, another lower spec R710 was also in the lab at the time and so we were eager to make some comparisons. This second machine only had twin 1.86GHz dual-core CPUs with 4GB RAM. This machine required only 60 per cent of the power used by the beefier machine; however, its performance was almost seven times slower for the Sungard benchmark and four times slower with Cinebench.

Benchmark Test Score
Cinebench 1 CPU render 62 seconds
16 CPU render 9 seconds
Sungard 225 seconds

The PowerEdge R710 is a well engineered machine with reasonable power and plenty of upgrade potential. The Quad Core Intel L5520 Xeon(R) CPUs, 2.26GHz provide good performance. Faster CPUs are available making it suitable for virtualisation applications — a scenario greatly enhanced by embedded hypervisor technology. Four gigabit Ethernet ports make this machine well suited to the role of centrepiece in a busy office's LAN.

Dell has been focused on energy efficiency through its Energy Smart technology. Peak power usage is 269.7 Watts (W) while its idle power consumption is 171.1W. Combined, these provide a weighted average consumption figure of 210.5W. These are good figures for a machine of this calibre (although no match for IBM's x3650 M2).

This machine is really intended for so much more than what the tested configuration can manage. Achieving decent return on investment really relies on upgrading this unit from its baseline configuration.

Dell offers a variety of services including factory, remote and on-site installation. On-board management technology assists with error correction and reduces the need for human supervision. The price, $12,013.20 including GST, includes three years of "Prosupport for IT". This service includes next business day on-site servicing and delivery of parts as required by the severity of the problem.

The bottom line A well-crafted machine, with great potential and reasonable pricing if rapid upgrading is expected
Vendor Dell
Price $12,013.20 as supplied
Warranty/support Three years of "Prosupport for IT": includes next business day on-site servicing and delivery of parts
The good Great processing power and plenty of RAM
Excellent upgrade potential
Modest energy usage
The bad Airflow past CPUs may reduce drastically in event of centre fan failing
SAS drives are very expensive

(Credit: HP)

HP ProLiant DL380 G6

HP's name has long been associated with quality. It produces a plethora of hardware products, from the simple calculator to high-end blade servers and network storage. All HP products are backed by excellent software, which ensures its equipment can be established and maintained with a minimum of fuss.

HP claims great manageability for this server thanks to its remote management software including Integrated Lights Out (iLO). Its claims of reliability are based on redundancies and good quality parts; this unit features dual-power supplies and N+1 fan redundancy.

HP also claims a high standard of performance and efficiency, with separate RAM banks for each CPU to ensure the best possible performance per Watt.

This ProLiant server was supplied to us with an Intel Xeon X5550 processor. This is a hyperthreaded quad-core CPU clocked at 2.67GHz. Also installed was 8GB RAM, filling four of its nine memory slots (like the IBM x3650 M2, the second processor (if installed) has its own bank of nine RAM slots). Altogether, its maximum memory capacity is 144GB.

HP provides plenty of disk space, starting with two 2.5-inch 146GB SAS drives, and providing six more empty bays ready for future expansion. The ProLiant, like many of the other servers tested, is not restricted to just the drives that can be contained within the main box; RAID controllers can be linked to external HDD banks as well.

Under the lid of this machine, very little is visible — apart from its fans and drive cables. The CPUs and RAM are hidden under a shroud, which ensures good airflow past these components. Everything else is hidden under the PCI riser cage, which is well engineered for strength and precision positioning, but has a lot of thumbscrews and latches to secure it.

This assembly was supplied to us with a single riser card, holding two full-height PCIe x4 cards and a single (thin) PCIe x8 card, which can just squeeze in over the power supplies. An addition riser card can also be installed. This can further add one full-height and two half-height PCIe cards.

All its cabling is neat and minimal so as not to confuse or inconvenience maintenance efforts.

The HP has a great diagnostic display on its front panel. Each CPU, RAM slot and power supply has its own LED positioned on a diagram that will make it really easy to identify anything that fails, without having to refer to the manual to identify an error code. So often, diagnostic panels lack any real clarity or depth. The IBM x3650, for example, provides detailed diagnostics, but relies on a two-digit readout to actually report the problem.

Benchmark Test Score
Cinebench 1 CPU render 37 seconds
16 CPU render 10 seconds
Sungard 351.4 seconds

When compared to the IBM x3650, the performance results for the HP ProLiant DL380 G6 appear quirky. Both the Cinebench and Sungard tests are processor benchmarks. The ProLiant performed roughly 20 per cent slower than the IBM x3650 in the Cinebench tests, and only half as well as the IBM on the Sungard test. However, with a second processor installed (and another 4GB RAM) the HP ProLiant was able to exceed the IBM's Cinebench performance by about 20 per cent.

In the Sungard test it still fell behind the IBM machine by about 20 per cent. These results are interesting, considering the processors in the IBM machine should theoretically perform better. Perhaps Sungard is a better judge of CPU performance (although it may be that some other component in the HP is lower in spec or in need of a driver update). Nevertheless, performance was still good — as one would expect from a set-up like this.

Energy usage by the ProLiant is 215W at peak and around 112W idle. The Enex TestLab pegs its average power usage at 153.4W. This is a pleasing score for the performance observed (remember, these figures will depend on configuration, adding another CPU and 4GB RAM increases the peak power usage by 84W).

The starting price for a DL380 is $4400, and the unit as tested in this review would cost $9851. We'd say, therefore, that HP has produced a quality product for a fair price. The unit comes with a three-year warranty combined with on-site, next-business-day service. On-site service is great for major issues, but it is likely that most simple problems will be dealt with in-house, so it would be nice if an administrator could quickly penetrate its casing to undertake repairs. Nonetheless, well done HP.

The bottom line A well-made and highly scalable server at a good price
Vendor Hewlett-Packard
Price $9851 as supplied
Warranty/support Three-year warranty combined with on-site, next-business-day service
The good Very user-friendly diagnostic LEDs on front panel
Good performance on a single CPU
Components firmly secured
Excellent scalability
The bad Too many latches and thumbscrews holding down the PCI riser cage
SAS drives are very expensive

(Credit: IBM)

IBM x3650 M2

The IBM x3650 M2 was supplied to the TestLab featuring twin, hyperthreaded quad-core Intel Xeon E5520 processors running at 2.27GHz and a handy 12GB RAM.

Just two months ago, Enex TestLab reviewed its predecessor, an x3650 from IBM. Its specifications were a little different from the M2 iteration and its price (about $4000 more expensive than the M2), but is it essentially the same machine? Our testing discovered that this newer machine, the M2, is cheaper, faster and more energy efficient (although it should be noted that the M2 machine runs Windows Server 2003 whereas Server 2008 was installed on the predecessor).

The x3650 M2 was supplied with twin, hyperthreaded quad-core Intel Xeon E5520 processors running at 2.27GHz with 12GB RAM, in a 2RU rack mount form factor. It featured two 73GB 15K RPM drives. The unit allows up to 12 2.5-inch drives to be fitted. The drives are controlled by a ServerRAID-MR10i SAS/SATA controller.

Both front and rear panels feature one VGA and two USB ports. At the rear, you will find dual-gigabit Ethernet ports, a management port, a serial port and four free PCIe x8 slots.

One of the M2's enhancements over its predecessor is that each CPU is provided with its own bank of RAM. The 5500 series processors feature internal memory controllers with three channels to its RAM slots. A second processor therefore doubles the number of memory channels available. At a pinch both processors can use the same bank of RAM, but this is obviously less efficient. Up to 64GB RAM can be inserted per processor.

MS Windows Server, Red Hat Linux, SUSE Linux, Novell NetWare and VMware ESX Server operating systems are all supported. At this stage Solaris 10 is not supported, but is planned.

In terms of performance, idle and peak power consumption results are 147.4W and 192.2W respectively. The machine's overall expected power usage is 165.3W. This score is remarkably low, even when compared to its previously tested brother. Smarter power management is employed on this newer unit, which ensures its fans operate at the optimum speed required — even during boot. Power is also saved by using 2.5-inch drives (rather than 3.5-inch drives).

Benchmark Test Score
Cinebench 1 CPU render 45 seconds
X CPU render 8 seconds
Sungard 167 seconds

The x3650 M2 is a clear refinement of the older model. The newer machine is cheaper, a little bit faster, and far more energy efficient. It features more advanced memory management, which probably accounts for the greatly improved score.

The build quality of this IBM machine is very good. Its components are held firmly in place with latches rather than screws, which helps to expedite maintenance procedures. This also goes for fans, hard drives and power supplies, all of which are all hot swappable.

The fans do seem a little loose in their mounts, but the electrical connection appears sound and there was no additional or excess fan noise. Redundancy was provided in the form of two fans built into the one physical unit. IBM mentions that during live swap-out the other fans will increase in speed to compensate and are positioned appropriately to provide adequate airflow during the short down-time required, however we'd feel more comfortable if there was a physically separate secondary bank. The few apparent cable bundles are bound together well and kept carefully out of the way of other components.

Assessing maintenance required is simplified by a comprehensive panel of diagnostic LEDs on a slide-out panel at the front of the machine. Basic status LEDs remain visible even when this panel is pushed in.

As supplied the machine's RRP is $11,000, which is an improvement over its previous offering. Overall, this machine has a good balance between price and quality — as you would hope for from IBM. The unit is supplied with a three-year warranty. Some parts are rated as user replaceable, but for more complex problems IBM provides on-site service.

The bottom line A great mid-range server with great expansion potential
Vendor IBM
Price $11,000 as supplied
Warranty/support Three years with some on-site support
The good Greatly expandable memory and drive capacity
Excellent engineering for reduced maintenance
Very low power consumption figures
Good warranty/service
Great diagnostic notifications
The bad A secondary fan bank would be nice
A touch over the price limit for this review
SAS drives are very expensive

(Credit: Lenovo)

Lenovo ThinkServer RS110

While server racks may conjure images of extensive server farms and Cray computers, even small offices can benefit from setting up a small rack. A small server or two, a modem and router that can be kept tidily out of the way, and plenty of room kept for a UPS.

It looks much more professional and is far easier to maintain than that rats' nest under your desk. A small rack server can be quite modestly priced and, when installed, more compact than a server in the tower configuration.

Lenovo is the company that took over production of IBM's ThinkPad and ThinkCentre range. They also produce a number of ThinkServers. The ThinkServer RS models are designed to be rack-mounted while TS models have the tower form-factor. This review looks at the RS110, a small 1RU device.

First impressions are always important, which is why installation instructions need to be accurate. This machine was supplied to the TestLab without an operating system or RAID configured, so some work was required before we could begin benchmarking (Lenovo can, however, supply customers with Windows Server or Suse Linux pre-installed).

The RS110 is a single RU device with a depth of only 55cm. Under the bonnet is space for a single CPU — in this case a quad-core Intel Xeon X3360 processor running at 2.83GHz. This is supported by the Intel 3210 chipset and a massive heat exchanger backed by three small fans (which also cool the RAM). There are four additional fans, two drawing air across the power supply and two cooling the hard drives and RAID card. Four memory slots are available; two were filled for a total of 4MB RAM, but up to 8GB is supported.

Graphics is controlled by an ATI ES1000 chip designed with remote management and KVM over IP applications in mind. Up to four 2.5-inch hard drives, or two 3.5-inch drives can be installed. As supplied to Enex TestLab, the machine had a single 146GB 2.5-inch 10K RPM SAS drive. The RAID controller filled one of two available PCI-E x8 card slots. It is also worth noting that the empty slot will only accept low profile cards.

The engineering of this machine is good, but not exceptional. Some of the niceties of high-end servers are missing. Since fans and the power supply are not hot swappable, there is little need for simple clip-in clip-out cradles. Things are neatly laid out inside, but being compact, this can make cabling appear more cluttered (sadly, smaller machines don't need less cabling).

The modest array of ports include two USB ports at the front and four more at the rear. Also at the rear are twin gigabit Ethernet ports, a management port, VGA, and a COM port.

Benchmark Test Score
Cinebench 1 CPU render 43 seconds
X CPU render 13 seconds
Sungard 496 seconds

The benchmark results shown in the table are nothing special when compared to the similarly priced Asus TS500 tower server (tested in October last year). The Sungard score is particularly disappointing compared to the Asus machine, which completed the benchmark in 306 seconds rather than the Lenovo RS110's 496 seconds.

Its peak and idle power consumption measured at 162.4W and 96.6W respectively, giving an average power usage of 122.9W. This is a pleasantly low figure, but it would suffer if one took advantage of the RAID card and added another drive or two. Extra 146G SAS drives like the one provided are priced at around $508 (although you could just as easily buy four SATA drives for the same price as one SAS device and wear the slight reduction in reliability). It is hard to see how the pricing of SAS drives is justified. Overall, the price of this machine is comparable to similar offerings from Dell.

The ThinkServer is provided with a basic three-year warranty with a variety of service options available. Even the base warranty includes 90 days with priority support, which includes next business day on-site service and 24/7 phone support. Options for on-site training and installation are also available. The RS110 is reasonably priced and has good performance and engineering, and very good energy consumption figures.

The bottom line An economical, reasonably powerful, low-end server for a small office environment.
Vendor Lenovo
Price $4026 as supplied
Warranty/support Three years warranty, 90 days priority support (including next-business-day on-site service), 24/7 phone support
The good Low energy consumption
Well priced
Good warranty/service options
The bad Incorrect instructions given for access to RAID configuration
At least one extra hard drive required for good data security
SAS drives are very expensive
Editorial standards