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First BX servers rev up the low end
--------------------------------------------------------- But Dell, IBM dual-processor Pentium II wares can't match current high-end products

By Henry Baltazar, PC Week Labs
04.15.98

ZDNet Products Special Report: 400MHz Pentium II

Pentium II servers on deck

PC Week Labs Review Dell Computer Corp.'s PowerEdge 2300 and IBM's Netfinity 5500, two of the first dual-processor servers to use the Pentium II BX chip set that Intel Corp. introduced this week, were predictably fast performers in PC Week Labs' tests. However, companies with large-scale processing needs will not be satisfied with either server's Slot 1 technology and RAM limitations.

Intel's BX chip set uses 350MHz and 400MHz Pentium II processors and marks the evolutionary end of the FX chip set. The BX's 100MHz bus is significantly faster than the 66MHz bus that was part of the FX motherboard and widens the I/O bottleneck holding back performance of high-speed processors. (See PC Week Labs' review of desktop systems based on the same chips and chip sets.)

In tests using the Ziff-Davis Benchmark Operation's NetBench for file and print services, the PowerEdge 2300 and Netfinity 5500 offered higher throughput than Compaq Computer Corp.'s ProLiant 6000 with four 200MHz Pentium Pro processors-a typical enterprise server.

The ProLiant prevailed in tests of database server applications using ZDBop's ServerBench benchmark, but it was only marginally better than the BX servers.

PowerEdge has lead-for now

Until vendors adopt the more powerful Slot 2 BX technology, workgroup- and department-level BX servers posting gaudy performance numbers will steal as much limelight as possible. The Dell PowerEdge 2300's exquisite design, modest price and consistent performance under heavy client loads make it the better choice of these two early offerings.

The $14,666 PowerEdge 2300 BX server, which shipped last week, is well-equipped with five hot-swappable, 4GB Ultra Wide SCSI drives; a 12/24-speed CD-ROM drive; and a RAID controller with 32MB of cache.

The PowerEdge 2300's toolless-access chassis was impressive, allowing us to access the server's innards by simply removing a thumbscrew-attached side panel. With the panel removed, we could get a good look at the motherboard and key hardware components, including the Pentium II processors and RAM DIMMs (direct in-line memory modules). We also could add and remove NICs (network interface cards).

The maximum RAM of the PowerEdge 2300 is 512MB of error-correcting code synchronous dynamic RAM. The forthcoming 256MB DIMMs will accommodate a full gigabyte of RAM-still nowhere near the 4GB commonly found in enterprise servers.

The PowerEdge 2300's internal storage is vastly improved over its predecessor, the PowerEdge 2100. The 2300's internal chassis can store six 1-inch drives or four 1.6-inch drives, supplying as much as 72GB of storage. This is nearly triple the capacity of Dell's older workgroup server and double the capacity of any workgroup server now on the market.

The Netfinity 5500 ran 18 percent faster than the ProLiant 6000, and the PowerEdge 2300 ran 13 percent faster, in tests using ZDBop's NetBench file-server performance software.

In ServerBench tests of application and database performance, the PowerEdge 2300 peaked at 736 transactions per second, slightly higher than IBM's BX offering, but close to 9 percent slower than an enterprise-class ProLiant 6000.

It's important to note that the PowerEdge 2300's performance numbers had the least amount of degradation at maximum client loads.

Despite its impressive performance numbers, the PowerEdge 2300 still only has workgroup-level usability and upgradability. Like its predecessor, the PowerEdge 2300 lacks redundant power supplies and cooling fans.

Finally, Dell does not offer an upgrade path to Intel's BX Slot 2 processors, which will be the first with full-speed Level 2 cache. (Current Pentium II processors have half-speed cache.)

Netfinity 5500: Full speed ahead

Unlike the PowerEdge 2300, which has no upgrade path to BX Slot 2, the Netfinity 5500's Slot 1 components can be easily removed and replaced with a Slot 2 upgrade module. This upgrade option will allow the addition of Pentium II processors with full-speed L2 cache, but IBM has not revealed an upgrade path beyond dual Pentium II processors or 1GB of RAM.

Furthermore, because expensive components such as the Pentium II processors must be replaced for the Slot 2 upgrade architecture, the upgrade process might not be cost-effective.

The Netfinity 5500 is slated to ship next month, priced from $6,000 to $18,000. In tests, the IBM machine proved suitable for use as a department-level server, and its optional redundant, hot-swappable power supplies are normally found only on enterprise-level servers. The Netfinity 5500 is also the first department-level server with hot-swappable PCI slots.

Using innovative optical sensor technology to detect the removal and addition of PCI cards, IBM has eliminated the need to use server management software during the hot-swap process. While removing and installing a NIC, we noticed that the optical sensors automatically turned the PCI slot on and off.

Although the Netfinity is a lot larger and heavier than the PowerEdge 2300, its hardware is almost as easy to access as that of the Dell machine. By removing a couple of thumbscrews and pulling off the top of the external casing, we could easily add or remove components such as CPUs, RAM and PCI cards.

The Netfinity 5500 also has storage space for six 1-inch, hot-swappable drives. The tower version we received also contained a "pedestal" storage area beneath the core components, which can be used to house a 10-drive storage enclosure.

PC Week Labs Executive Summaries:

PowerEdge 2300

Dellís PowerEdge 2300 server delivers enterprise-class performance at a workgroup-level price, and its streamlined design allows easy access to hardware components. However, its lack of upgradability and maximum of 1GB of RAM could confine its appeal to organizations where these issues are not top priorities.

USABILITYB
CAPABILITYA
PERFORMANCEA
INTEROPERABILITYB
MANAGEABILITYB

Pros: High performance; low price; solid management software.

Cons: Lack of upgradability; doesnít include enough RAM to run some enterprise-class applications.

Dell Computer Corp., Round Rock, Texas; (800) 289-3355; www.dell.com

Netfinity 5500

IBMís Netfinity 5500 logs high performance numbers as a file and print server, and its high-availability options separate it from the rest of the departmental server pack. Although IBM plans an upgrade path to the next-generation Slot 2 architecture, the Netfinity 5500, like Dellís PowerEdge 2300, is still limited to 1GB of RAM.

USABILITYB
CAPABILITYB
PERFORMANCEB
INTEROPERABILITYB
MANAGEABILITYNot tested

Pros: High performance; reasonable price; hardware redundancy options.

Cons: Limited RAM.

IBM, Research Triangle Park, N.C.; (800) 426-3333; www.ibm.com

PC Week Labs' scoring methodology can be found at www.pcweek.com/reviews/meth.html

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