ServersHardware Today: Dell Server Snapshot

Hardware Today: Dell Server Snapshot

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What first catches the eye about Dell’s Intel-based PowerEdge servers (especially if comparing them to those of the other major server vendors) is their low price points, which range from $274 to $5,499 for base configurations. Although memory, processor, and operating software options may add thousands to the final price tag, it will still be significantly lower than high-end offerings.

Our Dell server snapshot reveals the vendor taking aim at the low end of the market while gazing beyond with inexpensive, fast, and cluster-capable systems.

But this price point brings with it limitations and indicates quite clearly that Dell’s sweet spot is not the same as those of other vendors we have examined. As a July 2003 Dell press release put it, “Our SMB customers tell us that to be competitive they need the fastest technology at the lowest price.” Following this advice, Dell has pursued scaling out instead of scaling up. It has taken a two-pronged approach, targeting SMB deployments in the 1 to 100 user range with up to 4-way servers while setting its sights on larger deployments with clusters of 2-way and 4-way Xeon servers.

“Data shows that 2-way and 4-way Intel-based servers are the optimal building blocks for a majority of corporate computing needs,” Darrel Ward, senior manager for server product management at Dell, told ServerWatch, “as these provide better total cost of ownership and overall performance than comparable RISC-based servers.”

According to Ward, Dell is increasing its development focus on 2-way and 4-way standards-based systems. Ward notes that these systems combine maximum flexibility with a low total cost of ownership (TCO) to deliver an optimized ratio of high performance to low cost reaped by a successful scale-out strategy.

Besides being ostensibly less expensive, Dell’s PowerEdge line is also less confusing than those of Hewlett-Packard, IBM, or even
Sun. Dell’s steadfast avoidance of RISC and other proprietary
microprocessors in favor of Intel’s more grid friendly microprocessors has helped keep prices down. When deciding which Dell server to buy, potential buyers simply sort through the various makes of Intel processors, choices in processor range, and configuration types that the vendor offers.

Dell divides its current stable of 12 PowerEdge servers into three general categories: Value Towers, Performance Towers, and Rack Dense Performance Servers.

  • Value Towers are targeted at the entry-level end of the SMB spectrum. They are designed to support the file and print or e-mail needs for up to 10 users using the typically desktop-bound Celeron and Pentium 4 1-way and 2-way low-end offerings. The exception here is the Xeon-based 1600SC, which Dell positions like an entry-level Performance Tower.
  • Performance Towers are multiprocessor Xeon-based towers well-suited for database and e-mail servers for up to 100 users.
  • Rack Dense Performance Servers re-cover the territory of Value and Performance Towers for space-constrained environments. They are geared more toward clusters and provide a spectrum of processor options covering Celeron, Pentium, and Xeon. Dell’s sole Itanium option, the 3250, which is positioned as being useful for clusters and for testing applications, is also in this line.

Dell also offers a blade server option within its Rack Dense Performance Servers line. For clarification purposes, we elected to treat it as a separate category in the comparison tables below.

Compared to the other hardware vendors we’ve examined, Dell’s stable seems fairly light. One reason for its simplicity may be the company’s historically less intensive, though increasing, focus on servers. In 2003, for example, Dell’s enterprise sales increased quarterly but still accounted for a mere 22 percent of the its net revenue in the third quarter, according to unaudited corporate financial statements. With notebook and desktop sales rounding out its product offerings, not to mention accounting for 78 percent of revenue in that same quarter, Dell brings in little more than one-fifth of its sales leadership in the U.S. PC market through enterprise sales.

Because Dell’s server line is simpler than others we have examined, we opted to break it down twice, first in a snapshot version to allow for easy comparison with other snapshots, followed by a table that provides server-by-server comparisons.

Dell’s PowerEdge Servers, At a Glance

Blade Servers1

Target Deployment Lightweight file, print, and e-mail servers for one to 10 users SMB and departmental enterprise needs as well as database servers for one to 100 users Departmental enterprise needs, larger needs via high-performance computing and high-availability clusters General use and Beowulf high-performance computing clusters
Processor Types Pentium 4, Celeron, Xeon Xeon Pentium 4, Xeon, Itanium Pentium 3
Processor Range 1 to 2 1 to 4 1 to 4 1 to 2
Operating Systems Win200X, NetWare, Linux Win200X/NT, NetWare, Linux Win200X, NetWare, Linux Win2000, Linux
Servers 400SC,
Price2 $274 to $549 $1,499 to $3,999 $849 to $5,499 From $1,4993

1Dell considers Blade Servers to be part of its Rack Dense Performance Servers server line. We have broken them out merely for clarification purposes.

2Minimum configuration, after rebates

3Does not include the blade enclosure

Dell’s PowerEdge Servers, A Server-by-Server Comparison

Server Line



Processor Type

Processor Range

Operating Systems

Base Price1

Value Towers 400SC File and print server for one to four users Celeron, Pentium 4 1, only Win200X
600SC File and print server for one to 10 users Celeron, Pentium 4 1, only Win200X
1600SC Application server also suitable for multitasking for one to 10 users; file, print, and e-mail server for 11 to 50 users Xeon Up to 2 Win200X
Performance Towers 2600 Database server for one to 10 users; application server for 11 to 50 users; e-mail server for 50 to 100 users Xeon Up to 2 Win200X


Database server for 11 to 50 users; e-mail server for 50 to 100 users Xeon Up to 2 Win200X
6600 Database server for 51 to 100 users Xeon Up to 4 Win200X
Rack Dense Performance Servers


General-purpose, rack-dense server for SMBs Pentium 4 1, only Win200X
1750 Application and database rack also suitable for multitasking and serving static Web content for one to 10 users; file, print, and e-mail server for 11 to 50 users Xeon Up to 2 Win200X
2650 Application and database server also suitable for multitasking for 11 to 50 users; can also server dynamic Web content to up to 100 users; Beowulf high performance computing clusters Xeon Up to 2 Win200X
3250 Ideal for testing 64-bit applications and well as high performance cluster computing Itanium Up to 2 Win2003
6650 Application and database server also suitable for multitasking for 50 to 100 users; high performance computing clusters Xeon Up to 4 Win200X
Blade Servers3 1655
General-purpose server also suited for high performance computing clustering Pentium 3 Up to 2 Win2000, Linux $1,4993

1Minimum configuration, after rebates

2Dell considers Blade Servers to be part of its Rack Dense Performance Servers server line. We have broken them out merely for clarification purposes.

3Does not include the blade enclosure

According to Stephen Adams, founder and principal for NIKA
, Dell may need to consolidate its focus if it seeks market dominance. “Dell offers products in both areas, but I
think they’ll have to decide between the home market and the business market,” Adams told ServerWatch, “I don’t think they can sustain both in the long run.”

Nevertheless, Dell’s role in the worldwide enterprise server market has gradually increased. According to IDC’s Q3 2003 World Wide Server Sales Report, Dell came in fourth in worldwide server sales, posting an 11.6 percent year-over-year increase in net server revenue and continuing a quarterly trend of gaining ground on third-ranked Sun. The report explains Dell’s gains in terms of its lines’ modularity, reliance on Windows and Linux, and plague-like avoidance of RISC in favor of Intel’s offerings.

Dell uses the cost-savings advantage of its all-Intel product line as major selling point. Its giddy
ROI/TCO migration estimator
, for example, offers potential customers a demonstration of what they can save should they switch from a RISC-based system to a Dell x86-based one.

With seemingly obvious cost savings, what type of enterprise might need to look at Dell’s server offerings more
critically? “Perhaps a company which needed to install servers around the globe,” says Adams. “Dell just doesn’t
have the support organization up to speed in many places,” Adams continues, citing HP as a competitor with a global reach that might hamper Dell’s efforts at global server expansion. HP and Dell are close rivals in overall PC sales, and as Dell pursues its interest in servers, the competition will heat up. According to the Gartner report, “HP’s Latest Earnings Report Shows Growing Competitive Strength,” Dell remains the top contender in U.S. PC sales, with HP the competitor to watch in 2004.

Dell’s encroachment on a space typically owned by white box vendors would present it with a different sort of challenge,
if not for its service offerings and strong partnerships. One such service partnership is manifest in the Cornell Theory
Center’s 320 server cluster of dual Xeon-based Dell PowerEdge 2650s, which has provided computing contributions for Alzheimer’s and Cystic Fibrosis research, among others. Cornell recently
announced that the cluster, which runs Windows Advanced Server, has been named the 68th fastest supercomputer in the world.
Dell’s services group typically devises custom Beowulf (high-performance computing clusters) and high availability clusters based on PowerEdge 1655MC, PowerEdge 1750, and PowerEdge 2650 servers.

Dell has also partnered with other vendors to deliver Oracle 9I on clustered PowerEdge servers at what it claims is one-quarter the cost of RISC-based Sun systems. Dell partner EMC’s recent purchase of VMware places Dell, EMC, and Oracle in a position to capitalize on the increased popularity of virtualized computing. When Dell nixed its 8-way Xeon plans in July, it in effect ceded the 8-way market to the more-dominant players (i.e., HP, IBM, and Sun) and consolidated its focus around the 4-way and lower machines that have proven themselves ideal for virtual, grid, and cluster computing.

The one piece notably missing from Dell’s tight modular plan is a competitive blade offering. The PowerEdge
is Dell’s sole server blade. It was released in early 2003 after several 2002 delays, and is Pentium-III-based. This is a seemingly odd processor choice given that most blades have gone the Xeon route. The blades are available for both Windows and Linux. Adams notes, “Nobody I talk to thinks blade servers are the future of Windows … but certainly, for Linux, they make a lot of sense.”

Despite its limited blade selection, Dell is claiming to have sown the seeds of success. “We are starting to see a rise in demand for blades,” Ward says, “but we feel that further standardization in blade architecture is required to drive broader customer acceptance.” Despite this, Ward notes “appropriate demand” for the 1655MC blade line, and cites Japanese broadband provider SOFTBANK BB Corporation’s deployment of 1655MC blades in conjunction with Oracle of Japan as a recent Dell blade victory.

And perhaps Dell has some blade tricks up its collective sleeve for 2004. In a fall OracleWorld keynote
address, Michael Dell described efforts by Dell with “some other large computer companies” to overcome current blade
technological limitations, such as a lack of common architecture and the issue of heat dissipation, after which, ostensibly, Dell would unveil a new blade design.

Ward will not comment on that, precisely, but he does offer some teasers for 2004, describing a project with HP, IBM, and Intel to “jointly deliver a common server management interface to make it easier for customers to manage server hardware regardless of vendor.” Dell also plans to introduce new servers with PCIExpress (PCIe) interconnectability technology, and to provide more support for the Intelligent Platform Management Interface (IPM) v1.5. This motion toward interoperability demonstrates modularity’s continued importance to big vendors like Dell in 2004, whatever boons the economy may bring.

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