Reviewed: IBM System x3550 and x3950

Black, stealthy, capable, and cool — just a few words that aptly describe IBM’s System x3550 and x3590 servers. Here's a hands-on review.

It’s hard for me to get excited about commodity x86 servers these days. There are endless numbers of boxes on the market, and few vendors and models truly stand out. However, IBM always manages to capture my attention, with stellar Linux compatibility, scalability, and performance.

Recently, I got a chance to evaluate two servers representative of IBM’s current eServer line — the System x3550 and the System x3950. The machines have a cool, Darth Vader-black case and cool blue LEDs — true geek eye-candy — but the machine’s screaming performance and flawless installation and operation is really impressed me. I was sad to return the machines after my three-month trial.

I Wanna Go Fast!

Both servers utilize IBM’s latest X3 Architecture, a proprietary chipset the company has developed to improve 64-bit performance, high avaliability, and enhanced scalability on x86 Intel processors. Both also employ IBM’s Calibrated Vector Cooling, which is an automated fan and thermal management system that dynamically optimizes the path of air flow through the equipment, increasing the efficiency with which heat is removed from the system. Both servers were incredibly cool to the touch even after running for weeks nonstop with active virtual machines. The systems are amazingly quiet as well: the flashing LEDs are nearly the only evidence that the machines were crunching along. Both servers also employ the very latest in power saving technology, which scales back the CPU’s performance and power utilization when the machine is idle or are handling less intensive computational tasks.

The 3550 (see Figure One) is a 1U, dual-processor system that can use Intel’s latest and greatest Xeon 5160 dual-core CPUs, each clocking in at 3.0 GHz and able to utilize the 3550’s 1333Mhz front-side bus. The system has 2 PCI-E slots for expansion, such as for connection to a SAN, and has three integrated 1000-Base-T Ethernet ports (one dedicated for systems management using IBM Director). The machine also has a total of six USB 2.0 ports, four in the back and two in the front. The front ports are very handy for copying pre-created VMware and Xen operating system images from a portable USB 2.0 hard disk. A front video port in addition to the rear video allows for easier system preparation prior to racking and stacking — there’s no need to fiddle in the back of the chassis when you must attach temporary storage and display peripherals. The system can hold up to four internal, high-performance SAS drives, providing for RAID-5 with hot spare capability. The system can also be configured with up to 32GB of DDR2 RAM.

FIGURE ONE: The IBM System x3550 1U server

The 3950 (shown in Figure Two) differs from the 3550. It’s a 3U, quad-processor system based on the Xeon MP (Intel’s super-scalable version of the Xeon with 16 MB of cache) and is designed for the most performance-intensive environments. Multiple 3950 chassis can be stacked on top of each other with special cable connections that allow them to perform as a single logical computer running a single operating instance with up to 32 processors and up to 512 GB (yes, that’s gigabytes) of RAM. A single chassis can hold up to 64 GB of RAM. Six PCI-X 2.0 slots on each chassis permit plenty of expandability, so if you need to stuff it full of multi-port SAN host bus adapters or additional high-speed networking cards, such as 10GigE or Myrinet (need to build a crazy-size Oracle box?) you can.

FIGURE TWO: The IBM System x3950 3U server

Up to six 2.5 SAS drives are supported in each chassis as well, utilizing the machine’s integrated, hardware-based RAID. The x3950 has complete N+ N and hot-swap redundancy in all its key subsystems, so if you blow a part, you don’t have to wait for a service technician to arrive to place the system back to operation — the machine just keeps on going. The box also has IBM’s Remote Supervisor Adapter II, which has full support for IPMI systems management suites like Tivoli, BMC, and CA-Unicenter.

Just Add Linux

Linux installation on both systems was an absolute breeze. Both Red Hat 4 Update 4 and Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 installed without a hitch, and I didn’t install any drivers post-install to get full benefit out of all the hardware. I was impressed with the responsiveness of both systems, particularly when utilizing virtualized systems. In fact, I ended up using the x3550 and the x3950 running Linux to beta test multiple running instances of Windows Vista and Windows Longhorn Server on Xen and VMWare Server, since I didn’t have the PC workstation hardware required to run Microsoft’s hefty new operating system.

Both machines are “VT” capable, so they can run unmodified Windows instances completely virtualized and fully-accelerated using the Open Source Xen 3.0 in Novell SLES 10. While VMWare Server 1.0 and ESX Server 3.0 wasn’t hardware accelerated at the time of this writing, I was very happy with its responsiveness on these systems.

Price: Pricing for x3550 starts at $1,819.00 (IBM Web price). The x3590 starts at approximately $17,000.00.

Pros: Fast, quiet, power-misers based on Intel’s latest technology; systems can scale to meet an enterprise’s most demanding computing requirements; excellent machines to host Linux and virtualized operating systems.

Cons: Having to return the machines to IBM.

Companies looking to consolidate server use with either leading virtual machine technology should have a serious look at both of these systems.

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