IBM Serves Small Business

By Aaron Weiss | Posted July 26, 2006

The glut of PC-based computers on the market, including workstations and servers, is mixed news for consumers. On the one hand, the competition continues to drive prices downward. On the other, there are that many more models to choose from, sometimes creating a thick fog of indecision. How does IBM's new entry into their eSeries lineup, the x3400, stand out from the crowd?

If you work at IBM's marketing department, you stress the x3400's three key promises: scalability, availability and affordability. Plenty of high-end servers feature those first two qualities, and low-end mass market severs feature the third. IBM is pitching the x3400 as uniquely combining all three.

Why a Server?
As consumer-grade PCs have become dirt-cheap and increasingly powerful, more small organizations have pressed them into duty for tasks typically handled by more powerful machines — as file servers, Web servers, storage servers and database servers, for example. It's only logical to wonder what a "real" server has to offer.

Enterprise-grade servers differ from garden-variety PCs in several significant ways:

Speed: Servers support more and faster CPUs. The x3400 can support up to two of Intel's newest line of Xeon 5100 dual-core processors, giving it the ability to outperform even the fastest bargain PC.

Redundancy: Servers are designed to handle mission-critical applications and to run continuously 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Depending on the configuration, a server like the x3400 includes secondary, or "redundant," power supplies, fans, memory and hard drives, all on-board and ready to take over should a primary counterpart fail.

Hot Swapping: In addition to the all the secondary features, servers use disk drives that can be replaced on-the-fly without having to shut down the system first. This prevents downtime and increases what the industry refers to as a server's "availability."

Form factor: Servers come in a variety of shapes and sizes to suit different installation needs. The x3400 ships as a tower unit but can be installed into 5U of rack space with an optional mounting kit.

Management: Servers feature numerous management options, including KVM (remote keyboard and monitors) as well as software applications like IBM Director, supported by the x3400, which can remote detect, alert, and sometimes resolve problems.

A server like the x3400 doesn't come with features your business is unlikely to use. It has no sound card and limited video support (maximum resolution 1024x768).

Out of the Really Big Box
The x3400 is best suited to a roomy environment compatible with its substantial size. At 17 inches high and 8.6 inches wide, from the front the x3400 resembles a typical mid-tower PC. Yet, it's more than two-and-a-half feet long and weighs about 75 pounds. The behemoth's size is due, in large part (pun intended) to the hot-swappable power supplies and other changeable components like fans and hard drives, nested within independent removable chassis.

The server's faceplate swings open and pops off with ease, giving access to the four standard 3.5-inch and three 5.25-inch removable drive bays. An optional expansion kit can support an additional four 3.5 inch drives. As shipped, a 16x CD-ROM drive occupies one 5.25-inch bay.

Two USB 2.0 ports reside on the face of the x3400, with two more in the rear, and one located internally. The push-button power button, accessible only when the faceplate is open, prevents accidental contact.

The rear panel also features PS/2 ports for keyboard and mouse, a serial port, parallel port, video port, a gigabit Ethernet jack, and a second network jack for BMC server management.

Internal access to the x3400 is a snap, literally. The long side panel pops on and off with the squeeze of a latch, and there's ample room if you need to wriggle your hands inside. A pair of included security keys lets you lock the side panel into place, preventing unauthorized access.

Perhaps due to the server's length, it features several cooling fans and blowers making it louder than the average PC. In fact, as the case heats up, fan speeds increase, sometimes reaching hairdryer-like decibels. Like many servers, the x3400 is designed for an enclosed room away from public spaces.

The x3400 features six expansion slots for internal add-ons. Three support 64-bit PCI Express cards, two are 64-bit PCI-X ("Extended") slots, and one supports "legacy" 32-bit PCI for older expansion cards.

Setup instructions include installation guide, electronic documentation, and IBM's ServerGuide software, which simplifies both hardware and OS configuration.

Xeon Reborn
The new x3400 is among the first servers to come with Intel's latest high-end Xeon 5100 series CPUs. Significantly reduced power consumption means cooler operation (and lower utility bills). More efficient design means lower prices. The 5100 Xeons feature dual-core architecture, effectively squeezing two processors into one.

The x3400 is designed with high-performance a priority. All x3400 models can support two processors, allowing you to start with a lower-priced single Xeon configuration and later upgrade to a dual-processor configuration (for a total of four processing cores — i.e., faster performance).

Most x3400 configurations include a standard 1 GB of 667Mhz DDR2 ECC buffered RAM. The system can support a whopping 32GB of memory, which is one of the benefits of 64-bit CPU architecture.

The memory in an x3400, like other IBM server models, features its renowned "Chipkill" technology. Originally developed for NASA missions to Mars, Chipkill reduces memory failure by saving extra data that can restore corrupted areas of memory. It can also generate alerts when memory problems become serious, in advance of failures that would lead to downtime.

Disk storage in the x3400 is attached to a SATA RAID controller, which supports several RAID levels including 0, 1 and 5. RAID levels are configurations for improving performance and/or reliability of hard drives by writing data to multiple physical drives. The x3400 can support up to 1.2 terabytes of hot-swappable hard disk space.

Server Management
The x3400's BMC, or baseboard management controller monitors the health and well-being of the server. IBM claims that its "Predictive Failure Analysis" allows the BMC to alert administrators to potential hardware failure as much as 48 hours ahead of time, though it is difficult to directly test this claim.

The x3400 can perform internal diagnostics without being taken off-line. Combined with optional redundant components, the server can survive a variety of malfunctions without losing service, a plus in any critical server.

Windows or Linux
IBM preloads the x3400 with Windows Small Business Server 2003, Standard Edition. It also supports the Linux OS including Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Linux Enterprise Server.

Offering both a Windows and a Linux OS improves the x3400's flexibility, both in integrating into an organization's current infrastructure and as an option to switch platforms in the future.

Even with an entry-level configuration (a single 1.6 Ghz dual-core Xeon processor and 1GB RAM for slightly more than $1,000), the x3400 is well equipped to host single-server/high-traffic or multi-server/low traffic scenarios. A config with a 2.0 Ghz Xeon sells for $1,629.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is: bordella.com

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