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IBM Brings First-Class Features the Masses

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The glut of PC-based computers on the market, including workstations and servers, presents a mixed bag for many. On the one hand, competition continues to drive prices down. On the other, more models can add a thick fog of indecision.
Can a server be scalable, have high availability and still be affordable? IBM’s x3400 aims to deliver on this feature trifecta.

IBM’s x3400 in its System x (formerly xSeries) line is described as “a low-cost solution for growing businesses or branch offices that rely on 24×7 availability and mission-critical applications.” Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) fall into its sweetspot.

The x3400 is designed to stand out from the crowd in scalability, availability and affordability. None of these attributes is unique in and of itself — plenty of high-end servers feature the first two qualities, and low-end mass market severs often meet the third criteria. IBM is pitching the x3400 as unique for combining all three.

Out of the Really Big Box

The x3400 is best suited to a roomy environment compatible with its substantial size. At 17 inches high and 8.6 inches wide, from the front the x3400 resembles a typical mid-tower PC. Yet, it’s more than two-and-a-half feet long and weighs about 75 pounds. The behemoth’s size is due, in large part (pun intended) to the hot-swappable power supplies and other changeable components like fans and hard drives, nested within independent removable chassis.

The server’s faceplate swings open and pops off with ease, giving access to the four standard 3.5-inch and three 5.25-inch removable drive bays. An optional expansion kit can support an additional four 3.5 inch drives. As shipped, a 16x CD-ROM drive occupies one 5.25-inch bay.

Two USB 2.0 ports reside on the face of the x3400, with two more in the rear, and one located internally. The push-button power button, accessible only when the faceplate is open, prevents accidental contact.

The rear panel also features PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse, a serial port, parallel port, video port, a gigabit Ethernet jack, and a second network jack for BMC server management.

Internal access to the x3400 is a snap, literally. The long side panel pops on and off with the squeeze of a latch, and there’s ample room if you need to wriggle your hands inside. A pair of included security keys lets you lock the side panel into place, preventing unauthorized access.

Perhaps due to the server’s length, it features several cooling fans and blowers making it louder than the average PC. In fact, as the case heats up, fan speeds increase, sometimes reaching hairdryer-like decibels. Like many servers, the x3400 is designed for an enclosed room away from public spaces.

The x3400 features six expansion slots for internal add-ons. Three support 64-bit PCI Express cards, two are 64-bit PCI-X (“Extended”) slots, and one supports “legacy” 32-bit PCI for older expansion cards.

Setup instructions include installation guide, electronic documentation, and IBM’s ServerGuide software, which simplifies both hardware and OS configuration.

Xeon Reborn

The new x3400 is among the first servers to come with Intel’s latest high-end Xeon 5100 series CPUs. Significantly reduced power consumption means cooler operation (and lower utility bills). More efficient design means lower prices. The 5100 Xeons feature dual-core architecture, effectively squeezing two processors into one.

The x3400 is designed with high-performance as a priority. All x3400 models can support two processors, allowing organizations to start with a lower-priced single Xeon configuration and later upgrade to a dual-processor configuration (for a total of four processing cores, which results in faster performance).

Most x3400 configurations include a standard 1 GB of 667 Mhz DDR2 ECC buffered RAM. The system can support a whopping 32GB of memory, which is one of the benefits of 64-bit CPU architecture.

The memory in an x3400, like other IBM server models, features its renowned “Chipkill” technology. Originally developed for NASA missions to Mars, Chipkill reduces memory failure by saving extra data that can restore corrupted areas of memory. It can also generate alerts when memory problems become serious, in advance of failures that would lead to downtime.

Disk storage in the x3400 is attached to a SATA RAID controller, which supports several RAID levels including 0, 1 and 5. RAID levels are configurations for improving performance or reliability of hard drives by writing data to multiple physical drives. The x3400 can support up to 1.2 terabytes of hot-swappable hard disk space.

Server Management

The x3400’s baseboard management controller (BMC) monitors the health and well-being of the server. IBM claims its “Predictive Failure Analysis” allows the BMC to alert administrators to potential hardware failure as much as 48 hours ahead of time. We were unable to directly test this claim.

The x3400 can perform internal diagnostics without being taken offline. Combined with optional redundant components, the server can survive a variety of malfunctions without losing service, a plus in any critical server.

Windows or Linux

IBM preloads the x3400 with Windows Small Business Server 2003, Standard Edition. It supports Red Hat Enterprise Linux and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, as well as Novell NetWare, VMware ESX Server, SCO UnixWare, and SCO OpenServer.

Even with an entry-level configuration (a single 1.6 Ghz dual-core Xeon processor and 1 GB RAM for slightly more than $1,000), the x3400 is well-equipped to host single-server, high-traffic and multi-server, low traffic scenarios. A config with a 2.0 Ghz Xeon sells for $1,629.

This article was adapted from Small Business Computing.

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