Hardware Today: Dell Server Snapshot

by Drew Robb

Dell continues to gain ground while holding fast to its Intel ties.

Since our previous Dell snapshot taken last April, the vendor has continued to gain ground on its competitors, particularly in the volume server and blade categories. According to IDC, the company overtook Sun Microsystems for third place in the overall server market, picking up an additional 10.5 percent of market share in the third quarter of 2005. This represents an 11.8 percent jump in revenue over 3Q04.

Although no startling changes have occurred in the Dell lineup since then, the company has made steady improvements across the board. The biggest news, however, concerns dual core.

With the exception of three models, the PowerEdge 1800 and SC1420 towers, and the PowerEdge 1425 rack server, Dell has added dual-core technology to all of its servers. In the meantime, its single-core processors have been upgraded from 3.6 GHz to 3.8 GHz in keeping with the latest-generation Intel chips. Memory has also been boosted from 400 MB of RAM to 533 MB of RAM.

Recent Server Snapshots
HPC Market

Rather than introduce a new line of dual-core boxes, however, Dell used the existing boxes and configurations. For all intents and purposes, its single-core and dual-core boxes are virtually identical.

"We didn't want to force companies to make architectural decisions when they moved to dual-core," says Dell Server Product Manager John Fruehe, "so we decided to introduce it within the same form factors, the same systems, and the same system images to eliminate any possibility of disruption."

Tower Power

Dell has a strong reputation at the lower end of the scale. Even within that category, however, its towers are split into two categories — value towers and performance towers. By "value," Dell means the servers are priced from $349 to $549 — an aggressive price for a full-featured server.

The SC430, for example, comes with a Celeron, Pentium 4, or Pentium D dual-core processor, and a choice of operating systems (Microsoft SBS 2003, Windows Server 2003, Red Hat Linux, or Novell's SUSE Linux). As this server is basically a step up from a simple peer-to-peer network and typically acts as a small business' first server, customers can choose the lowest-cost options and walk away with a decent box for around $400.

Moving up the tower line, the PowerEdge 830 has the same processor choices as the SC430. However, it has more robust management/remote management features and up to 8 GB of memory. The 830 also has several optional features: RAID, SATA, or SCSI cards and hot-pluggable SCSI drives. It is intended primarily for remote/branch office use, and it is priced starting from $1,444 to $2,176.

The PowerEdge 2800, on the other hand, is a rackable tower server with up to two single-core or dual-core Intel Xeon processors, and up to 10 hard drive bays and seven I/O slots. Fruehe touts its price/performance by referring to recent Transaction Processing Performance Council (TPC) tests. TPC ranked the PowerEdge 2800 No. 1 in terms of price/performance, scoring it at $0.99 per transaction.

"We were the first vendor to break the $1 per transaction barrier," says Fruehe. "I remember only a couple of years back when everyone was excited about the $100 per transaction mark being broken."

The king of the Dell towers, though, is the PowerEdge 6800. This quad dual-core 64-bit Intel Xeon box has up to 3.6 TB of internal storage. It is designed for clustering, e-commerce, and database applications. Some companies are moving core databases running SQL Server or Oracle from older systems onto the 6800. Others are using it for e-commerce, CRM, and ERP. Fruehe mentions PeopleSoft and SAP as examples of ERP applications that can be run on this machine.

"Demand is typically for back-end systems that have been on a proprietary RISC-based Unix hardware in the past, or maybe 4-way Intel," says Fruehe. "With 64-bit, there's better memory use and performance."

While towers are certainly a mainstay of the Dell portfolio, its best-selling model is actually a 2U rack — the PowerEdge 2850. With optional dual-core processors, this 2-way server can run 32-bit or 64-bit applications, and has up to six internal hard drives and a data capacity of up to 1.8 TB. Fruehe calls it the sweet spot in the volume server market.

"People use it like a Swiss army knife for a wide range of purposes," he says. "It is a good platform that people like to standardize their environments around."

He points out that the 2850 has the same basic system image as the 2800 tower and the 1850 rack. Customers, therefore, like to mix and match these models depending on their needs. For example, the 2850 might be used to host heavy-duty or mission-critical applications alongside a bank of 1850's performing general-purpose tasks. Enterprises can pack 42 of these 1U racks into less than seven-square feet of data center floor space. System administrators can centrally manage and maintain any number of local or remote 2850's, 2800's, and 1850's relatively easily because of this commonality of features.

"Among all our servers, we only have a total of five system images," says Fruehe "That helps administrators to reduce the time and energy they have to spend on troubleshooting and software management."

Second Blade Lucky

Dell has had its fingers burned in the blade arena, so it's no wonder the company remains cautious in this area. It withdrew its initial blade in 2004 and then introduced the 1855 blade server about a year ago. That remains Dell's one and only blade offering. Available in single- or dual-core versions, 10 blades fit into a 7U enclosure.

"Customers who tend to buy this blade are more space-constrained in the data center, especially in high real-estate cost areas, such as London and New York," says Fruehe. "They are also being used a lot in remote locations where there's no local administrator."

An enterprise's home office, for example, can order a preconfigured blade direct from Dell to be shipped to the remote office. All it takes is someone to pop it into the enclosure, and the central administrator can bring it online and manage it remotely.

Despite the lack of choice, the Dell blade strategy appears to be working. Since the introduction of the 1855, Dell's cut of the blade pie has risen from 2.5 percent to 11.6 percent, according to IDC.

Intel Still Inside

Unlike the other major server OEMs, Dell's wagon remains hitched to the Intel star. While other vendors lean toward AMD, or have at least augmented their Intel offerings with a smattering of AMD-based models, Dell sees long-term growth in sticking firmly to its Intel guns. Thus, the Dell server upgrade path is tightly coupled with the current Intel road map.

"We plan further deployment of dual-core technology over the coming year, as well as the introduction of multicore chips as they become available," says Fruehe. "As before, the company remains firmly aligned with Intel."

Dell's PowerEdge Servers, At a Glance

Value TowersPerformance TowersRack Dense Performance Servers Blade Servers1
Target DeploymentLightweight file, print, and e-mail serving for one to 10 usersSMB and departmental enterprise needs; also a database serving up to 100 usersDepartmental and HPC high-availability clustersGeneral use and Beowulf HPC clusters
Processor TypesPentium 4, Celeron, Xeon EM64T, Pentium D (dual-core on SC430 and PE830)Celeron, Xeon, Xeon EM64T , Xeon dual core (1800, 2800, 6800)Celeron, Pentium 4, Xeon, Xeon EM64T, Pentium D (dual-core on PE830)Xeon EM64T
Processor Range1 to 21 to 41 to 41 to 2
Operating SystemsWindows 200x, Red Hat Linux, SUSE LinuxWindows 200x, Red Hat Linux, SUSE LinuxWindows 200x, Red Hat Linux, SUSE LinuxWindows 200x, Red Hat Linux, SUSE Linux
830 ,
Entry Price$349 to $549$549 to $3,999$549 to $12,499From $1,6992

1 Dell considers its Blade offering a part of its Rack Dense Performance Servers line. We broke it out for clarification purposes.
2 Price does not include blade enclosure.

This article was originally published on Tuesday Jan 10th 2006
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