Although Intel’s announcement earlier this year that it would be supporting simultaneous 32/64-bit processing was typically low-key it hasn’t taken long for some blue chip servers vendors to deliver product. Supermicro was first on the scene by some four months, HP came in next with an expanded ProLiant range and now Dell has announced a complete new server family based around Intel’s Nocona processor and Lindenhurst chipset.

The PowerEdge 2850 is top dog in the new range and this 2U chassis delivers a fine combination of solid build quality, features and specification. Remote server management tools are also very good as the server comes bundled with Dell’s OpenManage suite and Dell finally supports the IPMI (intelligent platform management interface) 1.5 specification by including an embedded baseboard controller. Provided the server remains connected to the power supply, you can access it locally or remotely over the LAN irrespective of its condition and control its power functions. The controller also monitors critical components and can send SNMP traps if a fault is detected.

IPMI support is now a valuable component for remote server management, but Dell’s implementation isn’t so easy to use and poor documentation doesn’t make things any easier. Fortunately, the price includes Dell’s optional DRAC 4/I controller which provides a slick web based remote interface with the server offering full access to power controls, console redirection and a useful virtual boot disk feature.

General server management and monitoring is handled by OpenManage. The IT Assistant component allows you to remotely access any Dell server, laptop or PC with the agent software installed where it can gather inventory information, shutdown or wakeup WoL compliant systems and use the alerting system to warn of any detected problems. The Server Administrator provides more detail on processors, memory and storage and allows you remotely modify the server’s BIOS and download firmware upgrades. Temperatures, voltages and fan speeds come under close scrutiny and thresholds can be used to issue alerts via network broadcast, running an application and sending an email to one recipient.

The 2850 offers a lot for your money and a fine hardware complement awaits underneath the easily removed lid. Cooling is a high priority with four hot-swap fans behind the hard disk bays and another two at the rear. A pair of 3.4GHz processors is in residence and these new Nocona processors use a 90nm Prescott core which implements the 64-bit instruction set. L3 cache has been abandoned in favour of a larger 1MB of L2 cache and the modules are fitted with massive industrial strength heatsinks to handle the higher heat output.

The E7250 ‘Lindenhurst’ chipset brings in support for DDR2 memory and the 2850 comes with 1GB installed in two of the six DIMM sockets. Note that you can’t mix these with DDR memory, and that prices for DDR2 are currently around 45 per cent higher. However, the new FBGA (fine ball grid array) packaging supports a much higher chip density with 2GB modules available by the end of 2004 and the specification supports 4GB modules. Their requirement for only 1.8v of power as opposed to 2.5v means heat output is also lower.

The motherboard has been designed around a casing with a pair of 700W power supplies inside reducing internal space dramatically. Consequently, the LSI Ultra320 SCSI chipset and all expansion slots have been relocated to a fully removable vertical riser card located on the motherboard’s edge. Storage capacity isn’t particularly exciting as you only get three, low capacity 36GB Seagate Ultra320 hard disks but the chassis can handle up to six drives and hot-swap is fully supported. Dell’s RAID package goes some way to make up for this as the riser card sports its PERC 4/Di package which includes the RAID enabling key, 256MB of DDR2 cache memory and even a battery backup pack.

Although not yet available with the 2850, the Lindenhurst chipset delivers support for the much vaunted PCIExpress. Whereas Intel’s E7525 ‘Tumwater’ chipset provides a 16X interface for high-speed graphics applications the E7520 focuses primarily on networking applications and delivers three 8X configurable PCI Express interfaces, two PCI-X segments, dual Gigabit Ethernet interfaces and the Dobson I/O processor. With the extra bandwidth you can expect to see future support for 10-Gigabit Ethernet and Infiniband. At present Dell offers a riser card with three 133MHz PCI-X slots but a version with one PCI-X plus 4X and 8X PCIExpress slots will also soon be made available.

Although DDR2 memory is expensive at the moment prices for Intel’s new Xeons are substantially lower with volume trade prices for some models around thirty per cent lower than the previous generation. Consequently, this allows vendors to offer better value and the PowerEdge 2850 certainly delivers on this count with a fine specification packed in a well built-low profile chassis.

OUR VERDICT

For many companies the 32/64bit computing question is irrelevant as they won’t need this for the near to mid-term future, but these new processors and chipsets are the next step in Intel’s roadmap so there soon won’t be any choice. If you’re still tossing up between AMD and Intel then the latter looks to have the upper hand in features and the PowerEdge 2850 is a fine example of this new technology.