Blade server shootout: Dell vs. HP vs. Sun

The new crop of blade servers is a giant step up from the previous generation

Dawn broke over Diamondhead on Oahu as I shrugged off my jetlag and drove to the Advanced Network Computing Lab at the University of Hawaii. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, but there was to be no lying on the beach today. By the time 6 p.m. rolled around, Brian Chee and I had uncrated half a dozen huge shipping containers; eaten more than our share of sushi; installed three out of four blade chassis; broken four drill bits, one window pane, and a coffee press; and Brian's eyebrow had finally stopped bleeding from a brief but violent altercation with the business end of L6-20 plug.

All in all, a good day. This series of events marked the beginning of the InfoWorld blade server shootout. Three of the Big Four blade server vendors -- Dell, HP, and Sun (minus no-show IBM) -- presented their latest and greatest blade server products for our careful inspection. As the smoke cleared at the end of the week, it became clear that the new crop of blade servers is a giant step up from the previous generation.

The test plan was actually quite simple: We conducted performance tests using the SPEChpc benchmarking suite and examined server management tools. Time was short, so each solution got only a single day to strut its stuff, but the vendors had more than a month prior to the test to prepare their wares. This included preparing the blades for the SPEChpc tests and installing any accompanying software.

We chose the SPEChpc tests not only because we're interested in the blades' HPC performance, but also because they would give each solution a thorough workout, extending to CPU, memory, and interconnect performance. We allowed vendors their choice of hardware, including the type of interconnect to be used, with the only requirements being that the SPEChpc tests were limited to 16 sockets and 32GB of RAM. Each socket might hold a dual- or quad-core CPU, and each blade might have two or four CPUs, but otherwise, the goal was to see the best of the best.

Big Blue's big blank

Test week started with a bang -- or maybe a fizzle, depending on your point of view. At the very last minute, and after months of preparation, IBM pulled a no-show.

Whether this was due to internal coordination problems or fear of competing against HP, Sun, and Dell is open for speculation, but we made several attempts to get IBM back in the game. In fact, when first confronted with the news that they weren't going to make it to the lab, I broke the rules and extended IBM's deadline by 10 business days.

Those 10 days passed with nary a whisper from Big Blue. They followed up a week or so later claiming that they could deliver hardware to the lab in another two weeks, but given their track record, I wasn't going to hold my breath. The test had been over for two weeks, anyway. Too little, too late.

HP BladeSystem c-Class

First up on the block was HP's brand-new BladeSystem c-Class. The c-Class substitutes 2.5-inch SAS drives for the 3.5-inch SCSI drives found in the previous crop of HP blades, and it abstracts much of the blade hardware into a modular backplane that boasts 5Tb throughput. These two factors mean HP's blades are half the size of their predecessors, yet offer more connectivity options and processing power.

The chassis is a complete redesign, boasting a nicely trimmed up-front LCD panel display that can be used to configure a surprising number of chassis operating parameters. The panel has a Web UI counterpart that matches the display exactly, easing "remote hands"-type administration. Up to 16 blades can fit into a single 10U c-Class chassis with a maximum power draw of 3.6kW. The N+N power supply configuration is also nicely handled, with six hot-swap power units laying low at the bottom of the chassis.

One of the more attractive aspects of blade systems is the ability to mix and match different types of blades within a single chassis. The HP c-Class currently offers three different ProLiant processing blades: the BL460c, an Intel EM64T-based blade; the BL465c, the AMD Opteron counterpart; and the BL480c, a 2P Intel EM64T-based blade. In addition to these blades, HP also offers disk-only blades, which can handle as many as six 2.5-inch SAS drives that appear as local disks to the immediately adjacent blade in the chassis -- a very nice touch.

Any of these blades may occupy a single chassis in any density. An interesting and welcome detail is the single internal USB port on each blade ostensibly present to allow use of a USB licensing dongle, because, unfortunately, many applications are licensed in this fashion.

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