Product Reviews

Ready To Rumble

IBM's System x3650 is impressive in both performance and price.

IBM System x3650
Documentation 10%
Deployment 10%
Expandability 20%
Feature Set 20%
Performance 20%
Management 20%
Overall Rating:

1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

For the thrifty at heart, there are few things in life better than finding a bargain. When I first started looking at the IBM System x3650, my first shock came from -- of all things -- the price.

In the past, I was accustomed to seeing IBM products priced higher than those of their competition. This was usually backed by the tried-and-true cliche, "you get what you pay for." The IBM with which I'm most familiar has long had a tradition of quality products with high-end prices.

With these expectations, I compared the price of the x3650 against the prices of similar models from IBM's competitors, HP and Dell Inc. Much to my surprise, the x3650 was more affordable than comparable Dell and HP 2U servers. The IBM model also offers up to 48GB of RAM, while similar HP and Dell servers maxed out at 32GB.

This seeming change in IBM's strategy made me wonder if the IBM brain trust was receiving advice from Rocky Balboa, who once stated: "If I can change and you can change, everybody can change." While Sylvester Stallone may not be serving on IBM's board of directors, it's fair to say that the winds of change are blowing strong at IBM.

The x3650 is a 2U server with a starting price of around $2,100. It offers the following features:

  • Support for up to two quad-core Intel Xeon CPUs
  • 12 DIMM slots with support for up to 48GB of RAM
  • Up to eight Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) hot swappable drives
  • Hot swappable redundant cooling and power
  • Four PCI Express slots
  • Onboard SAS RAID controller (supports RAID 0, 1, 10 with optional RAID 5 or 6 upgrade)
  • Onboard dual gigabit Ethernet card

This server is very well-crafted, with all of its 2U space maximized. The flexibility of the expansion slots, which support four PCI Express cards or two PCI Express and two PCI-X slots, was also impressive.

Cool Down
Many of the server deployments with which I'm involved support server virtualization. In these deployments, storage and network I/O are the most critical. So, when configured with two dual-channel fiber channel host bus adapters and two dual-channel GB NICs, you can have a total of four fiber channel ports and 6GB network ports (including the two onboard ports).

The server can accommodate up to eight 2.5-inch SAS drives or up to six 3.5 SAS drives, which offer a maximum internal storage of 1.8TB (SAS) or 3TB (SATA). The base unit includes a single power supply with five cooling fans. For redundancy, you can add a second power supply, along with an additional five fans. This will give you redundant power and cooling.

One of the unsung features of this unit is its Calibrated Vectored Cooling (CVC). With CVC, the speed of each cooling fan will run anywhere from 4,250 RPMs to 8,000 RPMs. The speed of the fan will increase as the temperature in the fan's associated server zone increases. It decreases as the zone temperature falls. By allowing fans to run at a variable rate, the system noise and power consumption are both reduced.

Knock Out Failures
Let's face it -- hardware always seems to fail at the least opportune times. Isolating a faulty component like a bad stick of DRAM can sometimes be a process of trial and error. With the Light Path Diagnostics feature of the x3650, troubleshooting is greatly simplified. The Light Path Diagnostics card displays an error LED when a failure occurs. You can then push a button to extend the card from the chassis to view additional LEDs. This lets you identify the part causing the error.

Suppose that the error is caused by a faulty dual in-line memory module (DIMM). With Light Path Diagnostics, each individual DIMM has its own error LED. So isolating a faulty DIMM is as easy as checking which LED doesn't look like the others. That's something even Rocky can do.

When combined with IBM's Director Management tool, Light Path Diagnostics can alert you of failures once they occur. Another nice feature that you can also integrate with Director is IBM's Predictive Failure Analysis (PFA). PFA monitors resources while tracking repeated errors (such as disk I/O) errors. Once a series of errors surpasses a predetermined threshold, the system will generate an alert. This helps you spot a failing device before it actually fails, and thus take preemptive action to prevent unscheduled downtime.

The x3650 literally took everything that I could throw at it without missing a beat. With its very reasonable entry-level price, this server would be a nice fit for medium-sized and growing organizations. With its low profile and excellent expansion options, this server is also a nice fit in data center environments.

While I would always like more features, I realize that there are physical limitations of a 2U chassis, and IBM has done a nice job shoehorning as many high-performing devices and expansion slots into the server chassis as possible. With excellent performance and configuration options, intelligent power management and aggressive pricing, the IBM x3650 is definitely worth a look. With or without the help of Rocky, it's clear that IBM is trying to once again reign over the heavyweights.

About the Author

Chris Wolf is VMware's CTO, Global Field and Industry.


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