IBM x3500, No Ordinary Workgroup Server

Extremely fast, with usually sophisticated and interesting features, the new IBM System x3500 is designed to function as a workgroup server for remote offices or small businesses. IBM shipped us an x3500 box several months ago, and we've gotten mighty friendly with it. Some of the reasons this machine is great are that it has:

  • Two dual-core Pentium Xeon processors, delivering up to 3.2GHz performance
  • Recently become available on quad-core Xeons
  • Up to 48GB of PC2-5200, 667MHz DDR memory
  • Three 64-bit PCI-E slots and two 64-bit PCI-X slots
  • A ServeRAID controller, with 256MB and battery-protected cache
  • Room for eight hot-swappable 3.5 inch SAS (or SATA) drives
  • An integrated dual-gigabit network card
  • A large tower or 5U rack-mountable footprint
There's nothing unusual about the target market for the IBM System x3500. The workgroup server is positioned at remote offices and small businesses. Its high availability, flexibility and powerful nature set it apart from the traditional big-towers-with-tons-of-disks that seem to plague back offices.

Interesting, you say, but what's so unique about that?

The x3500 is much more than the traditional big-tower-with-tons-of-disks that seems to plague back offices. This server is a highly available, flexible and powerful workhorse.


The x3500 is a monstrous tower, with enough PCI slots and internal storage capacity to satisfy nearly any user. Workgroup servers, as they are frequently called, are perhaps the most multitasked and overworked servers out there. Organizations often run mail servers and file servers, and host many applications from this single server. In this role, extreme power is desirable, but reliability and expandability are critical.

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These 64-bit Xeon processors mean serious business. The dual-core Xeon processors are Intel's 51xx line. Yes, the new ones that tested faster than many Opterons. They are also available in quad-core versions, with the E5320 Xeon, but these have a slower clock speeds. The most important processor data point when comparing similar models is cache. The dual-core Xeons share 4MB of L2 cache, and the quads share 8MB. These are hardly your grandmother's CPUs.

The variety of available PCI slots can be confusing. The x3500 has six in total: three PCI-E, two PCI-X, and one plain old 32-bit PCI slot. Of the three PCI-E slots, two are 64-bit x8 and one is 64-bit x4 (half-height). The PCI-X slots are both 64-bit, 133MHz, full-height slots. The PCI slot is the standard 32-bit, 33MHz type.

Memory speed and capacity should also be an important consideration when purchasing servers. IBM raises the bar a bit with these System X servers, taking high-availability features found in Big Iron and bringing them to the workgroup tower. The x3500 has 12 memory slots, supporting 48GB of DDR2 (PC2-5300) memory.

One very unique feature is that memory can be configured in two highly available fashions: memory mirroring or hot-spare memory. Like disk mirroring, memory can be configured so that data is written into two separate channels. In the event of a DIMM failure, the system continues running while using the remaining operational memory. Like disk mirroring, this uses up half of the RAM immediately. Using hot-spare memory, up to 40GB is available for use at all times, with the added peace of mind that failed DIMMs will be disabled and the system keeps running. Both of these features do require operating system support, however. It's currently unclear if SUSE or Red Hat can take advantage of these features.

The IBM x3500
The IBM x3500

That's just the tip of the high availability iceberg. The x3500 also supports hot swap, redundant power supplies, cooling fans and disk drives. The ServeRAID controller supports most levels of RAID, excluding RAID 0 (striping). The x3500 is a multifunction or, more accurately, all-function, machine so it appropriately supports LTO-3 (and more) tape devices internally to enable easy backups.

Operating Systems

IBM supports Windows Server 2000 and 2003, as well as the corporate-backed Linux distributions: Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES). We installed Ubuntu Linux, and nearly everything worked as expected. The graphics card wasn't well supported, but this is a server, so we didn't care enough to dig up the required ATI drivers. Presumably, RHEL and SLES support everything seamlessly.

As we can see from ‘lspci’ output, the network cards are Broadcom, and the RAID controller is supported:

  03:00.0  RAID bus controller: Adaptec AAC-RAID (Rocket) (rev 02)
10:00.0 Ethernet controller: Broadcom Corporation NetXtreme BCM5721 Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express (rev 21)
11:00.0 Ethernet controller: Broadcom Corporation NetXtreme BCM5721 Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express (rev 21)
12:04.0 VGA compatible controller: ATI Technologies Inc ES1000 (rev 02)

The ServeRAID-8k from IBM (well, Adaptec, really) seemed to work marvelously with Ubuntu's 2.6.17 kernel. Significant work has been done on the aacraid driver, and kernel 2.6.19 promises a rewritten driver that's even more efficient.

Overall, Linux on this server was a great experience. It's extremely fast and stable, and let's not forget painless, because of IBM's great choice of supported hardware.

Server Goodies

You simply don't find these features in non-server hardware. Since the x3500 pricing starts very low, it's amazing to find such wonderful features. Temperature-controlled fans, remote hardware management (optional) and, of course, IBM's light-path diagnostics all play a part in the overall server role.

Depending on how much CPU power is required, how much grid power you can stand to use, and your budget, the x3500 has many CPU options. Each option lists the wattage used by each CPU, but keep in mind that the rest of the server is power and noise-aware. Cooling fans rarely run at full-speed, for example. The IBM PowerExecutive software is designed to allow remote power monitoring and power capping.

With the x3500 server, IBM continues its tradition of providing a host of impressive features. It's ideally suited for efficient uses of computing resources: It can do everything. Sic this monster on your workgroup or remote offices' every need — the x3500 will happily oblige.

This article was originally published on Jan 18, 2007
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