HP delivers another server workhorse

You know a product is good when you keep trying to think of ways not to send it back to its maker. Hewlett-Packard's HP ProLiant DL380 G4 is one of those products. It arrived in time for a test of desktop encryption solutions and then stayed around for a few other projects.

Just when I was ready to send it back to HP, a server in a PBX review tanked -- once again into the breach went the DL380, and once again it performed perfectly.

HP has designed a capable, high-performance, highly flexible server for the enterprise rack and has priced it so that it's a reasonable buy for departments and the SMB market. The DL380 seems to embody an IT manager's wish list: No matter what I asked of this machine, it delivered.

Powering up

HP does not include an operating system with the DL380; the company says that the DL380 will support Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003, as well as two flavors of Linux -- Red Hat and Suse. It is an industry-standard Intel-based machine, so nearly any OS for Intel systems should work if you can find the drivers.

Inside the gray box are provisions for one or two Intel Xeon processors running at speeds as fast as 3.8GHz. Memory runs at 400MHz, and it supports both ECC (error-correcting code) and online spare memory. There's a megabyte of cache for each processor (2MB is available for some), and the FSB (front-side bus) runs at 800MHz.

The DL380 uses EM64T processors, so you can run 64-bit software on them -- assuming you can find it. You can mount six hot-swap Ultra 320 SCSI drives that are removable from the front of the chassis, and the USB port is accessible from the front of the server, which is a significant convenience for the IT staff.

The DL380 G4 will support 12GB of memory, and HP also makes it available with speeds as fast as 3.6GHz on dual-core Xeon processors and 2MB of Level 2 cache. The machine I tested had three 72GB Ultra 320 SCSI hard drives configured to the default of RAID 5 and 1GB of memory.

I installed Windows Server 2003 for this test, and other than enduring the tedium of installing Windows, about the only thing you have to do to get the DL380 running is to tell the BIOS on the embedded SCSI controller whether you want the installed drives configured as a RAID or as individual drives. That takes just a few seconds after making the menu choice on boot-up.

Serviceability with a smile

At this point, you have the opportunity to configure the network settings for the embedded iLO (Integrated Lights-Out) management system. You don't have to configure that to use the server, but you should do it before the server goes into service. iLO allows you to operate the server remotely, using a separate Ethernet adapter; it can be configured to use a completely separate network from the production system.

After you have set the network configuration, you'll find that HP's iLO system is one of the best management utilities in servers of this class. The iLO interface is both clear and intuitive. Because it exists independently of the installed OS, you can use it to boot up the server or to manage or restart a server that has crashed. However, iLO is all you get in terms of management tools -- there are no extra management utilities like some vendors offer.

iLO isn't the only means of servicing this device, though. The DL380 has hot-swap fans and disks, is equipped with redundant power supplies, and can support stand-by memory that will detect when there are too many errors in the ECC memory and switch to the backup memory automatically. The fans are also fully redundant, so if one of them fails, you're alerted through iLO, and an LED on the server will show you which one has died.

Serviceability is enhanced by the DL380's tool-free design. If you need to add a card to one of the three standard PCI slots, you'll need only to slide the machine out on the included rails, do what you need to do, and then slide it back. A hot-plug PCI-X slot is available as an option, as is a PCI-Express slot.

If you want to know what's going on while the DL380 does its job, you check the iLO. What's more important is what the DL380 does not do -- it does not make much noise.

Some of the previous HP servers I've seen were notable for the screech made by their cooling systems. This server simply starts up quickly and settles down to a quiet hum, making your employees -- and your OSHA compliance person -- a lot happier.

The DL380 handled whatever task I handed it, from security services and managing security databases, to supporting a SQL database and running a VoIP PBX, all without breaking a sweat.

This good performance is to be expected, given the fact that this machine had plenty of memory and a pair of 3.6GHz Xeons with hyperthreading. Adding dual-core processors would have sped it up further, but for most users, it's already plenty fast, especially considering the price.

What really matters is the larger performance picture: The whole pathway, from the network through the processors and memory to the disk, is made as efficient as possible in the DL380. Data flies down the path from the dual Gigabit Ethernet interface, through the speedy FSB and system bus and into the computer. If you have bottlenecks on your network, this server may help alleviate them.

A hefty piece of hardware

The only complaint I had with this unit is that it weighs a lot: While the exact weight depends on what's installed, the DL380 is easily over 50 pounds. It will take two people to install it, and if you have to remove it from the rack, you'll need them again. This weight is due to the strong structure that helps make this server very reliable, but it's still a hefty piece of equipment.

I hated to send back the DL380 because it performed well and handled everything I threw at it with ease. Availability is good, thanks to the hot-swap components, and the iLO management is solid. In short, unless you need the super high density of a blade solution or a 1U rack server, the DL380 G4 is a very good choice for all but the biggest loads.

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