Hardware Today: Dell Server Snapshot

Dell may not be chanting "Om mani padme hum" or "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna" but it does seem to have a mantra these days.

Performance, price/performance and price per watt is the latest mantra out of Round Rock, Texas.

"Performance, price/performance and price per watt," says Ryan Franks, product manager of Dell's PowerEdge Server Group.

In accordance with that theme, Dell has been rolling out a steady stream of energy efficient servers throughout 2006. These include a new blade, several towers and a handful of rack models. All were dual-core Intel models, until the company released two AMD models in October with much fanfare.

According to Gartner, Dell shipped 432,850 servers in the second quarter. That represents a market share of 21.5 percent of the total server space.

"Dell managed to increase server shipments by 2.3 percent over the same quarter last year," says analyst Jeffrey Hewitt, "but it experienced a drop in server revenue of 1.8 percent for the same period."

Franks qualifies those numbers by pointing out the Dell is the number one x86 server vendor in the United States. and number two worldwide. A vast majority, 85 percent to be exact, of those servers are corporate, a category in which Dell includes small and midsize businesses (SMBs).

Recent Server Snapshots

"SMB is very important to us and has always been a focus," says Franks. "We recently introduced a line of servers aimed at the SMB marketplace."

Dell Towers

Dell has plenty of new towers from which to choose. Each delivers a performance bump of anywhere from 60 percent to 200 percent more than its predecessor.

The PowerEdge 1900, for example, uses dual-core Intel Xeon 5100 series processors and is designed for database, messaging, and file and print sharing, as well as remote office markets. The company has boosted its performance by 211 percent compared to the previous generation. Its starting price is $1,399.

The PowerEdge 840, on the other hand, is marketed as a more general-purpose tower. It uses dual-core Intel Xeon 3000 series processors and is available with SAS and SATA disk. It starts at $749.

At the entry level comes the PowerEdge SC440, which also uses Xeon 3000 series chips. According to Franks, it tends to be used in small businesses for file/print, e-mail, Web and application server purposes. It is priced from $599.

"We've added a programmable LCD onto the chassis so users can see alerts on what's happening," says Franks. "To make maintenance easier, we've color-coded our server components."

Orange means hot pluggable, whereas blue means serviceable. A PCI slot, for example, would be colored blue.

To cater specifically to the SMB market, Dell preinstalls Microsoft SBS (Small Business Server) R2 on the servers. The company is also making efforts to ease server management for SMBs via Dell Server Assistant, a bootable, stand-alone CD-ROM that contains the tools to set up and configure PowerEdge components and software.

Dell Racks

Dell has some new offerings on the rack front as well. The PowerEdge 860, for example, is a 1U rack-mountable server powered with dual-core Xeon 3000 processors. It exemplifies Dell's performance, price/performance and price-per-watt mantra noted above. Compared to its predecessor, the PowerEdge 860 provides a 66 percent increase in performance and a 146 percent improvement in performance per watt. And its starting price of $949 isn't bad, either.

Similarly, Franks plays the same refrain when discussing the Dell quad-socket Xeon 7100-based PowerEdge 6800 and PowerEdge 6850 racks. Both are designed for data center usage. For large database environments, they can be beefed up to 16MB cache processors to process massive data blocks. They are priced starting at $6,900.

"Our racks are showing strong sales across all segments," says Franks. "The PowerEdge 6850 is favored more as a back-end database running SQL Server or Oracle."

One Blade, One Vision

Dell has never been thought of as "blade vendor." Since the early days of blades it marketed one model at a time on a largely take it or leave it basis. The latest version is the PowerEdge 1955 blade server using the Xeon 5100 processor.

The good news is that anyone who loaded up with older Dell 1855 blades need not be too concerned when it comes time to refresh. The newest blades fit in the same 7U chassis as the old 1855, and both blades can be deployed side-by-side. It comes with better Fibre Channel (FC) features, which help it keep up with the latest and fastest storage gear, yet it also supports Ethernet and InfiniBand connectivity.

"We try to hit the sweet spot with one blade that fits most needs," says Franks. "Our share of the blade market has risen from 2.5 percent two years ago to 18 percent."

As one would expect, the 1955 blade lowers power consumption by 25 percent compared to the 1855, with a performance per watt rating increased by 169 percent. It costs $1,848.

Dell Chip Change

All the servers mentioned above are Intel Xeon-based. Each one harnesses dual-core processors. In fact, Dell has completed its rollout of dual-core across every server it makes.

"Dual core is now mainstream and comes standard with our servers," says Franks. "The only exceptions are older server models we keep in the catalog in case existing customers want some more."

For example, you can still buy single-core Celeron processor machines, although you will not see them advertised. Franks says the company does this to provide a smooth transition from older to newer models.

But the biggest news on the chip front isn't the low-key presence of Celeron or the end-to-end roll out of dual core. After being a vocal and committed Intel stalwart for many years, Dell relented and is bringing AMD into the fold, albeit very slowly and cautiously.

Thus far, two AMD Opteron models have been released. The Dell PowerEdge 6950 is a four-socket machine, while the PowerEdge SC1435 is a two-socket, rack-dense version. They are priced from $6,499 and $1,299, respectively.

Franks wasn't willing to discuss the details or the reason for the abrupt shift in policy. "We intend to utilize these Opteron-based servers to broaden our reach," he says. "We are focusing on customer environments where AMD is going to deliver exceptional performance, price/performance and price/per watt,"

Om mani padme hum, indeed.

Dell Servers, At a Glance

Value Towers
Performance Towers
Rack-Dense Performance Servers
Blade Servers
Target Deployment Lightweight file, print and e-mail serving up to 10 users SMB and departmental enterprise needs, also DB serving for up to 100 users Departmental enterprise needs, larger needs via HPC and high-availability clusters General use and HPC clusters
Processor Types Celeron D, Pentium D, dual-core Xeon 3000 and 5000 series Dual-core Xeon 5000, 5100 and 7100 series Celeron, Xeon 3000, dual-core Xeon 5000 and 5100 Pentium 3
Processor Range 1 to 2 1 to 4 1 to 4 1 to 2
Operating Systems Win200X, Linux Win200X, Linux Win200X, Linux Win200X, Linux
Servers SC440
Entry Price $399 to $894 $1,348 to $16,105 $699 to $6,499 From $1,488

This article was originally published on Nov 6, 2006
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