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x3455, Green Yet Mean

By Charlie Schluting (Send Email)
Posted Nov 16, 2006


The x3455 is a fairly recent addition to IBM's System X line. This server is aimed at resolving organizations' computational needs, and is ideally suited for running Windows or Linux servers with a need for speed. IBM offered us a test unit to put through the paces, and we happily obliged.

It's rare to find a server that is both powerful and power aware, yet IBM's System X x3455 is just that.

The x3455's feature set is indicative of its capabilities and performance-oriented nature. The box offers:

  • Up to two dual-core Opteron 2000 series processors
  • Up to 48GB of ECC PC2-5300 RAM
  • Two 3.5” SAS (or SATA) hard drives
  • Two PCI-E slots; one x16 and one x8
  • Integrated dual gigabit NICs
  • Integrated remote power management (IPMI)

Ideally, for computing clusters, the PCI-E and HTX slots are intended to house Infiniband and 10Gb Ethernet cards. The x3455 is power-conscious, drawing only 120W with the most powerful processors available and 95W with a more moderate processor. Filling a rack with 1U servers can be impossible in some data centers, but moderate power usage from the x3455 can help tremendously.

The x3455 is priced similarly to Sun's Opteron servers for the minimal configuration, and increases modestly as the options improve. However, to get an x3455 with dual Opterons nearly doubles the price. These machines are competitive, though, since even the least expensive configuration boasts more features than Sun's X2100. Remote management, including the ability to power on a server remotely, is invaluable, and IBM realizes that.

The most significant issue we have with the x3455 is that the hard drives are not swappable. Not hot-swap and not cold-swap, without taking apart the case. The first disk is hidden under the DVD drive with no front-panel access; a second can be mounted internally. Being able to swap at least one disk is nearly a required feature at this point, and we're baffled as to why the drives in the x3455 are buried.


IBM x3455
The IBM x3455

So why would you want an x3455? And what separates it from all other Opteron server solutions available? We asked product manager Virginia Packer those exact questions, and she was happy to field them.

Big Blue believes the x3455's most significant feature is the IBM Xcelerated Memory Technology. Technical details weren't available, aside from the marketing brochure, and the best meaning we could ascertain from this was that IBM put in fast RAM. For the sake of accuracy, Big Blue is marketing the Opteron's DirectConnect Architecture and HyperTransport technology. The memory latency is improved by providing the fastest available RAM (at the time of production): 667 MHz DDR II, or PC2-5300. Also, ECC memory with Chipkill Protection is supported but not required.

According to Packer, the server's competitive advantage is that most other vendors don't use DDR2/667. Although that is true, for the low-end servers, we found plenty of comparable Opteron servers that did in fact have the exact same memory available.

To its credit, the x3455 does have some interesting features.

In the performance area, since this server is targeted at compute-intensive applications, IBM's memory architecture offers some advantages. More memory, six DIMMs per CPU, is allowed, which should result in higher throughput for memory-intensive applications. The focus on clock speeds is a bit misleading, but increased volume per-processor is noteworthy.

IBM Light Path Diagnostics also provide a competitive advantage. Every serviceable component inside the x3455 has an LED next to it. In the event of failure or trouble, a light leading right to the source will be illuminated, directing troubleshooter and service personnel immediately to the root-cause.


The inside of the IBM x3455
Inside the IBM x3455

Power is also different here; of course, we can't ignore the Watts. The Opteron CPUs are low-power models that consume very modest amounts of juice. Combined with temperature-controlled fans, this server is very green. Servers that are both green and mean (i.e., powerful) are unusual, even these days.

The x3455 boasts two 64-bit expansion slots as well. Two PCI-E slots, capable of supporting the full data rates of cards, are standard. The first is an x16 slot, perfect for 10Gb Ethernet, and the second is an 8x slot, with a surprise. The 8x slot can, with an adapter, be used as an HTX slot. HyperTranspot-enabled HTX cards use the AMD DirectConnect architecture, thus communicating with much less latency than a PCI-based card. Infiniband cards are the likely candidates, and IBM will happily provide an IBM Infiniband card for this slot.

In the field, the x3455 server proved capable and stable. The test unit arrived with Red Hat Linux installed and lacked an optical drive, making an operating system reinstall cumbersome. After resetting the root password, we were up and running with the shipped OS.

It's an Opteron server, like many, many others. Compared side-by-side with another of like speed, the x3455 performed similarly. Unfortunately, finding a benchmark that would test the x3455's strengths proved elusive. However, with everything we tried, from creating enormous files on the fast SAS drives to calculating prime numbers, the x3455 ticked happily along, never missing a beat.

If you're looking for a powerful, yet power-aware Opteron workhorse with convenient features available only from a seasoned server manufacturer, then look no further. The x3455, though lacking in a few areas, is a wonderful, low-cost powerhouse.

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