Lenovo's new ThinkServer: Low sticker price, lots of upgrade options

Lenovo's internal management application is getting progressively more flexible

We tested the Lenovo RD440 as a base-unit, 2U server. We found it pretty generic on the surface, but options, including software pre-loads, increase its potential utility for volume users and especially smaller operations.

We also found that Lenovo's internal management application is getting progressively more flexible.

Lenovo's latest ThinkServer has a base price of only $US1339, which is what a high-end notebook could cost. The ThinkServer isn't going to win any style points for its looks, but most servers live behind closed doors, where any cosmetic loveliness will be all but lost on humanity, save those lucky personnel that install and service them. Aesthetics are perhaps a waste for rack-fodder.

Inside the RD440 was perhaps more of a 1U in terms of what you get for the base price, but we could fill its 2U form factor quickly with options, such as adding a CPU (another quad-core Intel Xeon E5-2400v2 processor) and then drives.

Adding the additional CPU also determines how many PCI bus slots are available. The internal space can be rapidly filled. In its most basic form, however, it's a good generic server, if with limitations largely associated with its two Ethernet ports, along with a management Gigabit Ethernet port for a total of three.

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This means that the hardware-build options of the RD440 aren't vast. The short list includes possible processor, memory, and drive combinations. It's comparatively scrawny at the base price, but the price can ratchet quickly. And the storage options are considerable.

The server gets its "character" at Lenovo factory build locations. While the list of options for hardware is somewhat confined, the list of how it can arrive configured in terms of hypervisor and operating system support was almost staggering.

We had ordered ours with Windows Server 2012R2, but found that generic versions of VMware, Red Hat and Linux, as well as Citrix, spin up easily.  

Lenovo has gotten onboard the customization (and revenue) train that allows almost drop-in server profile and characterization. This increases the value of the RD440 somewhat dramatically for organizations that don't have their own provisioning methodologies, or perhaps the budgets and vendor agreements to get their server purchases rapidly productive.

Testing 2U

The server was delivered to the lab with one CPU, a quad core Xeon, along with Western Digital WD1003FBYX 7200rpm conventional removable drives (in drive frames), which connect as SATA-300 bus drives--six of them at 1 TB each in our delivered generic configuration.

Our unit also came with a CD/DVD drive, that could be potentially eliminated in certain optional drive configurations; booting from a flash drive is just as easy and potentially faster, and PxE net boot faster still.

For the "too darn busy", Lenovo offers ready-to-go installation of both hypervisors, and also bare-metal operating systems, or a combination of the two as mentioned, but we found it trivial to install various Microsoft, Linux, and hypervisor operating systems -- except that the server is delivered with a UEFI BIOS, which must be updated (took two minutes) to permit non-UEFI operating systems and hypervisors to work. Our preloads and installs were breathtakingly drama-free. We like that; a generic label sometimes has its benefits in drama reduction.

The offerings one could obtain from Lenovo include a Top 6 List of hypervisors and server-focused offerings. Windows server editions ranging from 2003- to 2012R2 are available, as might be expected, but also VMware in varying gradients, as well as Citrix Xen, SUSE Linux.

The unit we tested had 6 TB of fast drives, and a healthy processor. Trouble was, it arrived with only two Ethernet jacks, and one additional for management. The basic IO is therefore, scrawny. We tested the downloadable or vendor-obtained ISOs for each alternative Lenovo offers, and installed them gleefully.

The RD-440 platform in the single quad-core configuration tested well under LMBench3 but not startlingly so, and results were in the margin of error for other Intel quad core E5-2400v2 CPUs we tested. The 7200rpm SATA-300 Western Digital drives, however, had a bit faster combination read/write speed than other SATA-300 drives. We expect faster drive options might be highly desirable, if more expensive.

Internal storage can consist of nearly any current rational choice, ranging from six 1TB SSD drives, through SAS, SATA, all with increasing per-server storage choices. Storage density rises as one moves away from SSDs through SAS, then SATA drives, but then the speeds start to slacken with density. Some combinations, as mentioned, obviate the CD/DVD drive, which is unlikely to ruffle feathers for most as CD/DVD drives become a less-frequent source of initial program load, or subsequent payload.

Like the previous ThinkServer tested, the RD440 allows BIOS controls to render various RAID configurations, depending on the type and quantity of drives that are ordered with the unit, or subsequently installed. It's easy to choose chapter-and-verse for the configuration, and even for the type of operating system/hypervisor, although we couldn't extensively test this.

Overall

The generic version of the Lenovo RD440 satisfies many needs at a bargain basement price, but if you want fries or cheese with that, expect the price to go up, of course. Our testing proved it's not a barn burner or a slouch. It can hold up to 192GB of memory, along with plentiful disk upgrade options (although we could find no way to mix the options), and but one CPU option upping the max core count to eight.

Lenovo gets points for improved management for system and disk and for a very strong offering of the latest operating systems and hypervisors as a preload -- if of course at an optional price. A few clicks, and you get what you want from the box.

How We Tested

We received a sample server, and tested it in the lab, then our network operations center. The lab network consists of a switched Gigabit Ethernet network (D-Link switches) with Dell, Apple, and HP servers running various operating systems, VMware 5.5 and Hyper-V3, with PxE services via a Fedora VM atop VMware atop a Dell server.

The NOC network consists of a Gigabit Ethernet/10G Ethernet switched fabric, with HP, Dell, and other Lenovo server, a Dell/Compellent SAN, connected via Extreme Networks GBE and 10G Ethernet switch fabric. This in turn is connected to Expedient/nFrame's core routers, and we connect lab and NOC via Xfinity/Comcast broadband; approximately 13hops.

We tested the Lenovo ThinkServer RD440 by partially disassembling the unit, and after reassembly, testing our internal ISO images of Hyper-V/Windows 2012 R2, SUSE Linux, Red Hat Linux, Ubuntu 13.10 Linux (works), and Citrix XenServer. The Linux distros were tested after we patched the UEFI BIOS, a one-way step.

We used LMBench3 and SciMark2 as test platforms, comparing them to other servers in its class. We also pulled a drive to test the RAID configuration, and the firmware dutifully screamed bloody murder! And continued to run, re-integrating the drive upon re-insertion into the six drive SATA-300 Western Digital drive array we were sent. No fuss, no muss.

Henderson is principal researcher for ExtremeLabs, of Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at kitchen-sink@extremelabs.com.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

Tags Configuration / maintenancehardware systemsLenovointelData Centerserver

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