IBM x3250, Server Room Chameleon

by Charlie Schluting

The x3250 is targeted at the low end, yet has an array of options that enables it to range from a fairly weak machine with a single Celeron D processor to a mission-critical quad-core Xeon workhorse.

IBM's System X line has an interesting newcomer, the x3250. The feature-packed, configurable server comes in at an extremely competitive price point and will surely turn some heads.

The review unit arrived in a neatly packaged box. On unpacking, we were delighted to discover IBM included four hot-swap disk drives in the 1U chassis. Other features included:

  • One Pentium D, Celeron D, or Xeon (dual- or quad-core) processor
  • Up to 8GB of DDR II 667MHz RAM
  • Two PCI-E x8 slots
  • Two SATA or four SAS hard drives
  • Integrated RAID 0,1 (RAID 5 optional)
  • Dual Gigabit Ethernet
  • An industry-standard IPMI management port

A minimally configured x3250 starts at just under $1,000. The server's configuration options are designed to attract data centers looking to use as many of the same server as possible. The x3250 can be a fairly weak machine with a single Celeron D processor, or it can be a mission-critical, quad-core Xeon workhorse. Regardless of processor choice, the server consumes only modest amounts of power due to the power-aware nature of all of the chips.

Botond Kiss, the x3250's product manager, stated that the server's main focus is, "Extremely good performance with enterprise-class features at a budget price." In addition, this server is equally versatile. It can be configured with two SATA hard drives or four SAS drives. The drives are all front-accessible, hot-swappable and connected to an integrated, high-quality LSI RAID controller (optional with SATA, standard with SAS). This flexibility is very difficult to find in similarly priced servers elsewhere on the market.

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There's actually very little to dislike about the x3250. It is targeted at the low end while providing some great features.

However, dual-power supplies are not one of those features, and truly mission-critical servers generally must have two separate power feeds. Thus, this is not a server on which you should be running your most important application.

What the x3250 does make for is a great back-end application server running as part of a redundant cluster.

The integrated management controller supports industry standard IPMI interface but doesn't allow for remote console or KVM access. The good news is you can purchase IBM's Remote Supervisor Adapter to add this functionality. IBM Director plays ball with this add-on card, as does the default-integrated IMPI interface, to a limited extent.

The default management functionality includes one potentially intriguing feature: Automatic Server Restart. If the server experiences a hard lockup, it automatically restarts within five minutes. This feature is dependant on operating system support, but IBM provides both Linux and Windows drivers to enable the functionality. It can truly be a lifesaver for remote administrators.

It is common to see lower-end servers priced very low but with some critical component missing. Thus, the advertised "starting at" price doesn't get you a functional system. Some vendors leave out the CD/DVD drive, but IBM includes it standard in all models.

However, the x3250's base price does not include the hard drive. Thankfully, it's possible to cheaply add two SATA drives, and the integrated RAID controller can mirror them.

The IBM x3250
The IBM x3250

Upon opening up the case, we were presented with a fairly standard looking server. Four memory slots, fans, neat cable management ... and a strange metal triangle hovering near the back. It turns out that this is a PCI-E riser card, which lifts up and out of the way. Cards are attached underneath the metal to the riser board and fastened to the back panel, which contains a hinge. The entire assembly lifts out of the way without removing any cards! A full-sized card could potentially block a few memory slots, so being able to simply swivel the entire assembly out of the way is quite useful.

If a machine is to perform reliably, it must be properly cooled. The x3250 has five internal fans, which are clearly separated into three specific quadrants. First, a single fan is tasked with blowing directly on the memory DIMMs. Second, a pair of fans cools the processor. Finally, the remaining two fans cool the hard drives, RAID controller and PCI-E slots. Each fan is temperature controlled, so it need run at full speed only when absolutely necessary, saving on energy costs as well as keeping the noise level down.

As far as performance goes, we ran the x3250 for a bit with Red Hat Linux preinstalled. Like most new Xeon servers, it performed extremely well. Installing packages, as well as running the Apache Web server and other common tasks screamed along merrily. This may not be a heavily performance-oriented machine with special memory architectures, but it does perform as expected for a high-speed Xeon server.

Now that multiple vendors offer the same processors within their entry-level servers, the frills set them apart. Well, frills and reliability, that is. IBM offers ServicePacs for business customers, which include hardware warranties and varying levels of onsite service. The standard options are available, at reasonable rates similar to the competition.

If you're looking for a highly configurable server with some great features, look no further. It's rare to find such a well-designed entry-level 1U server with RAID and remote hardware management, let alone the extreme flexibility IBM provides with the various configuration options.

This article was originally published on Thursday May 3rd 2007
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