- ✓Compact all-in-one solution
- ✓Scalable to four dual-socket Xeon blades plus 48TB of shared storage
- ✓Shared RAID controller and built-in storage virtualisation
- ✓Shared PCIe expansion slots
- ✓Integrated network switch
- ✓Extensive management features
- ✕No direct support for Linux at present
Over the years server vendors have developed a variety of all-in-one products with multiple servers, storage and, sometimes, networking all shoehorned together into a single box. The aim was to deliver enterprise functionality in a format that smaller companies could both afford and manage, but few ever caught on due, mainly, to space constraints and a lack of scalability. That looks set to change with the introduction of Dell's PowerEdge VRTX (pronounced Vertex), a compact yet very scalable all-in-one blade server with integrated storage and networking plus a couple of unique technology twists that set it apart from earlier attempts.
One of the key selling points has to be the decision to base the VRTX on the same blade technology as in Dell's popular M1000e enclosure. Or rather, the same blades but with different firmware to take advantage of VRTX-specific features (about which more shortly).
Two blades are available, the M520 and M620, both with dual sockets to take Xeon E5-2400 and Xeon E5-2600 processors respectively. Our review system came with the higher-spec M620, which can be specified with a variety of processors from the E5-2600 family, Dell opting for the mid-range E5-2650 (2.0GHz, 8 cores and 16 threads) on the system we tested.
VRTX M620 blade
Backed up by 24 DIMM slots, the M620 can carry up to 768GB of RAM, ours shipping with a 'mere' 96GB. That still enabled the M620 to clock up a Geekbench multicore score of 26,249 — a result that compares well with other Windows servers based on the same silicon, and one that could be further enhanced by opting for faster high clock speeds. During our evaluation, the even quicker v2 (Ivy Bridge EP) implementation of the Xeon processor was added as an option on both VRTX blades, and this is what most new buyers will go for.
An impressive server in its own right, the M620 further benefits from an on-board PERC RAID controller connected to a pair of on-board SFF (2.5-inch) disks. The usual storage suspects are all available, including both SSD and magnetic drives, the review system featuring 300GB 10K SAS disks on the blades mainly for boot and local storage purposes, with shared storage separately provided for within the VRTX enclosure.
The VRTX enclosure
Talking of the enclosure, it's possible to order the VRTX as either a free-standing tower or as a 5U rack unit. Either way you get essentially the same chassis, but with a bit of extra metalwork and optional wheels to make it into a tower and the same colour LCD panel for enclosure management inconveniently mounted sideways if you opt for the rack.
The VRTX is incredibly quiet even when pushed hard, coming with redundant power as standard and room for up to four blades altogether. Ours had two that simply slide into slots located at the front of the enclosure, with the shared storage accommodated underneath (or alongside in the tower). There's a choice of either 25 SFF or 12 3.5-inch drive bays, all hot-pluggable and capable of taking the usual variety of disks.
Maximum capacity is a massive 48TB, although Dell provided us with a more modest (yet still sizeable) 3TB across ten 2.5-inch SAS drives.
Of course, if this were a standard blade solution you might expect to add mezzanine cards to each blade to access shared storage via a SAN, but not on the VRTX. Rather than a SAN there's a new PERC8 RAID controller on the VRTX motherboard, which can be shared by the blades for direct access to the storage in the chassis. Furthermore, the storage is virtualized and treated as local as far as the blades are concerned — an approach that worked well with the Windows Server OS on our review system. The new Shared PERC8 is also certified for use with VMware and Hyper-V hypervisors. Linux drivers have yet to be released, although Linux can still be deployed on virtual machine clients.
It's not just the storage that can be shared: PCIe expansion and networking are similarly available to all VRTX blades, with eight PCIe slots available on the enclosure motherboard. Each of these can be individually assigned to any of the four blades to, for example, connect to a fibre channel SAN without having to add mezzanine cards onto the blades themselves.
An integrated switch looks after the networking side, with 16 internal ports to connect to the blades via the backplane and 8 for external connectivity. The switch is currently a Gigabit implementation, although a 10GbE version is on its way with the M620 blades connecting via a dual-port 10GbE mezzanine card; the M520, meanwhile, has an integrated 4-port Gigabit controller.
The switch itself is Layer 2, but with link aggregation, VLAN, QoS and other extensions built in.
And lastly there's the usual Dell management facilities, with iDRAC controllers on the blades plus an independent Chassis Management Controller (CMC) to provide oversight and management of all the VRTX components. Ours had two CMCs for redundancy and there's a unified console based on the tried-and-tested iDRAC interface to further simplify both deployment and day-to-day management.
Who's it for?
When first launched, the PowerEdge VRTX was seen as an affordable all-in-one solution for small to medium-sized businesses where the alternative would be two or more standalone servers alongside separate storage and networking products. As such, it was expected to be used for everything from general Exchange and SQL Server hosting through to a platform for retail, manufacturing and other specialised applications.
However, according to Hugh Jenkins, enterprise programs marketing manager for Dell EMEA, it has since garnered interest from larger companies who, he says, have found it to be a simpler more affordable solution to branch office needs, as well as finding a role in private cloud and virtual desktop deployments.
We were impressed by the PowerEdge VRTX, which packs a lot into an affordable and very compact enclosure and which, unlike other all-in-one attempts, is flexible and scalable enough to handle a wide variety of application tasks.