Server Quality, Desktop Price

By Aaron Weiss | Posted October 02, 2006

This is an exciting time for both the desktop and server markets, after several years of what felt like the same old thing. While you won't hear it on the evening news, the effects of dual-core processors — CPUs that contain two or more processing units inside — are trickling down to benefit every segment of the market.

Besides the direct benefits of running these multitasking-friendly processors in a server environment, the dual-core wave has put pressure on pricing of powerful single-core processors, making them even better values than ever.

Capitalizing on both trends, IBM has created the System x3105. This entry-level server supports two types of processors: the high-performance, value-oriented single-core AMD Athlon 3500+ or, for more horsepower and multi-tasking capability, the server-branded dual-core AMD Opteron "Santa Ana" line running at speeds from 1.8Ghz to 2.8Ghz.

Small businesses with limited resources are sometimes tempted to substitute a desktop system for a server. What this option lacks in reliability, server-grade components, maintenance software and support, it makes up for in affordability. However, with an aggressive starting price of $499, the x3105 upends that equation. It offers an array of features, both in hardware design and software support, that simply aren't available in a desktop PC pressed into server duty.

Out of the Box
The x3105 comes in only one form factor, a compact mini-tower measuring just 16.5 inches high, seven inches wide and a modest 17.5 inches deep. Unlike a higher-end server, the x3105 isn't designed for rack mounting, but also unlike more expensive servers, it is well suited to an office environment — small and, it's worth noting, quiet. Its temperature-controlled fans rev up at startup, but in a room of average temperature, they quickly slow to a comfortable, office-friendly whir.

The front face of the x3105 mini-tower includes a power button two USB 2.0 ports, a CD-ROM drive, and space for — but not including — a floppy drive and a tape and/or GoVault backup drive.

At its rear, the x3105 includes four USB 2.0 ports, one serial and one parallel port, a 1Gigabit Ethernet connection, and an integrated video port. It does not include any legacy PS/2 ports for mouse or keyboard, so if you connect the x3105 to a KVM switch, be sure it supports USB keyboards and mice, which is typically standard these days.

Under the Hood
Inside, the x3105 is user-friendly and accessible. The hard drive bay, which can support up to two 3.5-inch SATA drives, rotates outward for easy access. Drive cables are marked with colored tags indicating their placement. The chassis uses thumbscrews to hold the cover and bays in place, so you don't need tools to open it.

A single case fan, whose breeze is channeled with a removable plastic shroud directly over the hottest components, cools the CPU and heavily populated portion of the motherboard. This design nicely maximizes cooling of the machine's critical operations while minimizing the amount of airflow, and therefore audible noise, needed to get the job done.

The system supports either an AMD Athlon 3500+ or dual-core 12xx series Opteron CPU. While the Athlon is a blazingly fast single-core processor, it is technically a desktop-class chip, in comparison to the server-class Opteron.

Besides its support for dual-cores, which are best suited to the multitasking nature of a server, the Opteron features enhanced HyperTransport support, which opens up direct communication pipelines between the processor and critical components like memory, which boosts performance speed. The Opteron also includes 2MB of L2 processor cache, versus the 512K in the Athlon.

Unlike many desktop systems, the x3105 includes server-grade memory in the form of 667Mhz PC2-5300 DDR II RAM. Error Correcting Code memory (ECC) features data integrity mechanisms that improve its reliability over standard grade RAM. It does not support IBM chipKill memory as found in higher-end, more expensive servers. The x3105 can be outfitted with a maximum of 8GB of RAM in a 4-x-2GB configuration in DIMM sizes of 512MB, 1GB, and 2GB. The base x3105 ships with 1GB of memory in 2 x 512MB configuration, leaving two available memory slots.


IBM System x3105 entry-level server
For the price of a desktop, you can buy the full-featured IBM System x3105 entry-level server.

The x3105 includes as its standard storage a single 80GB SATA hard disk. It will support up to four SATA connections, although the included hard drive bay supports only two 3.5-inch drives. You can also add an SATA GoVault backup drive to a 5.25-inch bay. GoVault drives are ruggedized, portable hard disks that come in a variety of capacities and can be popped in and out of the machine like tapes.

While the x3105 does not include multi-disk RAID support in its base configuration, you can optionally add an IBM ServerRaid-8s adapter that offers enterprise-style RAID configuration options.

Five slots allow for both legacy and server-level adapters. Two x8 PCI Express (PCI-E) slots are available for specialized capabilities such as RAID or 10 Gigabit network adapters.

Like most servers, the x3105 includes integrated video. Its Radeon RN50B can power up to 1024x768 with full color at 85Hz, which is more than adequate for a server console.

Server-Grade Software
IBM supports a variety of operating systems on the x3105, including several flavors of Windows. Here's a list of operating system options.

  • Server 2003/R2 (in both 32- and 64-bit editions)
  • 2000 Server/Advanced Server
  • Small Business Server 2003 (Standard Edition and R2)
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 or 5 (32- and 64-bit editions)
  • SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 or 10 (32- and 64-bit editions)
  • NetWare 6.5 Open Enterprise Server

With support for a wide range of server-grade operating systems, the x3105 has a leg up on competitively priced desktop alternatives that may lack drivers to fully capitalize on the potential of these operating systems.

IBM's ServerGuide software streamlines the process of installing and configuring supported operating systems on the x3105, as it includes necessary drivers and other configuration settings which have been tested and proven to work with the machine's known hardware.

IBM Director 5.1 software is a comprehensive management suite designed to work in conjunction with both the hardware and supported operating system on the x3105. Director allows for local or remote monitoring and administration of the server, as well as generating alerts for a wide variety of conditions. IBM's PFA, or predictive failure analysis, attempts to foresee failures in critical components like hard drives and memory, issuing alerts through the Director console.

Automatic Server Restart is a server-class feature designed to maximize the x3105's availability. Combining software drivers and integrated hardware, ASR continually monitors the responsiveness of the operating system. If it fails to show signs of life due to an operating system or hardware failure, ASR will automatically reboot the server at the hardware level. Because of its continuous monitoring, ASR ensures that the server should never be unresponsive for more than five minutes — another feature you won't find on a desktop server alternative.

More Steak Than Sizzle
For a few hundred bucks, today's desktop machines come loaded down with glitz — free flat screens, printers, fancy video cards for gaming, speakers and so on. Small businesses that opt for desktop machines for server duty wind up spending money on unnecessary frills.

In contrast, IBM's x3105 offers a serious, sober server at desktop prices. Rather than plow your investment into flashy toys, the x3105 offers server-grade features and management support that's hard to find at its price level. This server makes a lot of sense for small businesses in need a light-duty server, particularly for file and Web serving, content management or point-of-sale transactions. Its small size and quiet operation let you keep it where bigger iron doesn't fit — right under your desk.

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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