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Dell PowerEdge R815

The first of the big-name vendors to deliver a server based on AMD's new 16-core Opteron 6200 series (Interlagos) processors, Dell has stolen a march on the competition with an affordable yet highly scalable 2U platform offering all the usual PowerEdge trimmings.
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By Alan Stevens on
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1 of 5 Alan Stevens/ZDNet

Dell PowerEdge R815

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2 of 5 Alan Stevens/ZDNet

According to Dell, its AMD Opteron-powered PowerEdge R815, introduced last year, has been a runaway success — particularly with buyers looking for high performance on a budget. Moreover, as shown in this exclusive review, there's a lot more to come, thanks to the first 16-core x86 processor, AMD's Opteron 6200 (code-named Interlagos), which Dell is now offering on this and other PowerEdge servers.

Interlagos essentials
In case you missed it, the 32nm Interlagos processor family was released to server vendors back in September, and is the first to be based on AMD's new modular Bulldozer architecture. This uses a completely new building-block module containing two tightly-coupled integer cores designed to share resources, including a Floating Point Unit (FPU) and L2 cache, rather than have resources dedicated to each core. One result is a space saving on silicon real estate; another — according to AMD — is more efficient multi-threading across the two core modules compared to the independent-core approach taken by Intel on its Xeon chips.

A 16-core AMD Opteron 6200-family processor die, comprising eight dual-core Bulldozer modules

The processors in the Opteron 6200 family can comprise up to eight of the dual-core Bulldozer modules to reach the maximum of 16 cores. They are all designed to fit into the same G34 sockets as the current 12-core Opteron 6100 (Magny-Cours) family.

Owners of existing PowerEdge R815 servers can simply buy new processors and pop them into the four sockets on the Dell motherboard, raising the core count from 48 to 64 and providing a potential performance lift of just under 30 percent without having to make any other changes. Indeed, the only other major change we found on the new R815 was the option for faster 1600MHz RAM.

That apart, the rest of the specification stays the same — but then the R815 is already well equipped to make the most of all that processing power, and doesn't really need much tweaking.

The R815 in detail
Like the Intel-powered PowerEdge R810, the R815 is a 2U rack-mount server typically equipped, like our review unit, with a pair of redundant power supplies. An optional bezel can be clipped on at the front to keep stray fingers out, and rails added for sliding into a standard 19in. rack.

Front-mounted USB and video ports are provided, along with a neat pull-out identity tag, plus a small LCD panel for local monitoring.

Access to the internals is via the usual slide-off lid with a very neat interior layout complete with lots of clearly marked hot-swap components. A large plastic baffle covers much of what's in there, directing the airflow across the processor sockets, driven by a bank of six hot-swap fans in the middle of the chassis.

Inside the R815, six hot-swap fans drive cooling air over the four Opteron 6200-series CPUs

The sockets on our review system were filled with Opteron 6272s, which sit towards the top of the new lineup, each with a full 16 cores clocked at 2.1GHz with a Thermal Design Power (TDP) of 115W. That's quite high, so if you're looking to save on energy you can specify an 85W implementation — the 1.6GHz Opteron 6262 HE — as an alternative. There are also a number of faster models, up to the 2.6GHz Opteron 6282 SE with a 140W power envelope.

Eight- and four-core implementations are yet another 6200 option, but we weren't able to establish whether these would be available on this particular server. We were told, however, of plans to refresh other servers with the Interlagos processor, including the 2-socket PowerEdge R715 and the 4-socket AMD blade, the PowerEdge M915.

Alongside each CPU socket are eight DIMM slots capable of holding up to 512GB of the latest 1600MHz RAM for buyers with server consolidation and virtualisation in mind. This amount of memory will also be of benefit on a database server, but it will push the price up — well beyond the £8,421 (ex. VAT) quoted here, which is for the 128GB of RAM fitted on our review system.

Storage and more
With only 2U to play with there's room for just six 2.5in. hot-swap bays, arrayed across the front of the R815 chassis. These can be filled with the usual SATA, SAS and Near Line SAS options or, for those with deep pockets, Solid State Drives (SSDs).

Our review unit was modestly equipped, with six 73GB SAS drives spinning at 15,000rpm. These were cabled to a Dell PERC H700 controller, with the disks configured as a RAID 5 array. The PERC adapter fits neatly into its own dedicated socket, leaving six PCI Express slots free to take other adapters to handle external storage, SAN connectivity and so on.

Networking is catered for by a set of four Gigabit Ethernet ports, and there are all the management options we've come to expect on a PowerEdge server. Our review system had an iDRAC 6 Enterprise controller with its own dedicated Ethernet interface, plus support for full remote control and remote media access and Dell's unique Lifecycle Controller for media-free configuration.

Finally, you get not one but two SD slots to take bootable hypervisors — yet another option that's unique to the PowerEdge platform.

Living with Interlagos
We only had the new PowerEdge R815 for a few days prior to launch, which was just enough time to check it out against typical deployment setups and get a feel for what the system's 64 cores might be capable of.

With four 16-core Opteron 6272 processors, the PowerEdge R815 has 64 CPU cores at its disposal

We started with the VMware Hypervisor (ESXi 5.0), which installed with no trouble and hosted a dozen Windows 7 virtual machines (VMs) — which was all we had time to create — without turning a hair. We then installed Windows Server 2008 R2 and tried out Hyper-V, but it looks as though an update will be needed to Microsoft's hypervisor for it to correctly identify the new Interlagos CPUs.

On the plus side, the relatively low clock speed (2.1GHz) of the Opteron 6272 didn't appear to be an issue, with AMD's Turbo Boost technology turning up the clock on individual cores (up to 3.1GHz on the 6272) when others are idle. Consequently, we got some decent Geekbench scores — some 12 percent faster than an equivalent server configured with Xeon processors delivering the same 64 processing threads.

Another feature of the new Opterons is the ability to automatically cut the power to idle cores, but lack of time meant we weren't able to check this out, so we can't comment on its effectiveness.

The R815 did, however, run quiet and cool throughout our tests, apart from the odd burst of fan activity when pushed hard. Although we couldn't run exhaustive tests, it certainly appeared to deliver on AMD's performance claims. Moreover the Dell implementation is impressive, equipping the PowerEdge R815 with all the bells and whistles needed to take full advantage of what the new CPU has to offer.

Update 14/11/11
Subsequent to our initial testing of the PowerEdge R815 with Hyper-V, AMD advised us of a Windows hotfix (Knowledge Base article 2568088) to resolve the problems we were having with Microsoft's hypervisor failing to initialise. The issue, it seems, is related to the Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) added to the x86 instruction by AMD as part of its Bulldozer architecture, and also by Intel on its Sandy Bridge chips. The hotfix adds support for these extensions, plus there's a workaround to disable the AVX feature using the command-line bcdedit utility. We tried both and were able to get Hyper-V to successfully initialise on the PowerEdge R815 and host multiple virtual machines.

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3 of 5 Alan Stevens/ZDNet

Dell PowerEdge R815

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4 of 5 Alan Stevens/ZDNet

Dell PowerEdge R815

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5 of 5 Alan Stevens/ZDNet

Dell PowerEdge R815

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