REVIEW: Dell R710 PowerEdge Raises Server Bar

The Dell R710 PowerEdge 2U rack-mount server is a worthy combination of compute and performance power, and the first system I've seen that provides an alternative to BIOS for power-on system setup and configuration. Many of the Dell R710 PowerEdge's most compelling characteristics are driven by the need to optimize the data center for virtualization tasks.

The Dell R710 PowerEdge 2U rack-mount server is a worthy combination of compute and performance power, and the first system I've seen that provides an alternative to BIOS for power-on system setup and configuration.

Dell ships the R710 PowerEdge with BIOS as the default but with UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) as an optional method for initially booting the hardware system. Firmware management has taken on new importance and a higher profile as physical servers play host to virtual environments, and Dell's introduction of UEFI will be an interesting development in this space. For another approach, see my exclusive review of Cisco's UCS that bakes firmware management into what it calls "system profiles."

Check out eWEEK Labs' gallery: Dell R710 PowerEdge.

Also new in the R710 PowerEdge is an on-board utility called the Unified System Configurator that is based on UEFI. This utility provides a pre-OS environment where platform updates-including BIOS, diagnostic utility and firmware, rollback, physical system diagnostics, and OS deployment-can be performed. I will be interested to see if this type of utility breathes new life into the DMTF's SMASH initiative or if vendor-specific hardware management tools will continue to rule the Jurassic period of commodity server virtualization.

The Dell R710 PowerEdge server began shipping earlier this year and starts at $4,677, according to Dell's Website. The system I used priced out at approximately $7,270 on the Dell site, and was equipped with two quad-core Intel Xeon E5520 processors, 32GB of DDR3 RAM and dual, high-power 870-watt power supplies. The HP ProLiant DL380 is a direct competitor to the R710 PowerEdge.

R710 PowerEdge Hardware

The R710 PowerEdge 2U form factor makes it a good fit when additional PCI cards must be fitted into the system. The roomy interior, large fans and extensive internal heat shrouds keep the CPUs and memory cool without a NASA-grade wind tunnel. Much of the thermal control work must be credited to the Intel Xeon 5500 series processors, which are able to consume power at a rate that is more closely associated with actual workload than previous-generation CPUs were.

My test system was equipped with two 73GB 10K 2.5-inch hard-disk drives. The system can accept up to eight 2.5-inch drives or six 3.5-inch drives. Drive configurations are available in the usual variety of capacities and speeds.

The R710 has 18 available DIMM slots that can be configured with a maximum of 192GB of DDR3 RAM. My test system had 32GB of RAM. The potential for RAM expansion is an important consideration for IT managers as memory prices come down and virtual machine usage increases. And this sets the stage for IT managers to pay even greater attention to cable management and racking gear, to accommodate changes over a system's lifetime.

The R710 can be installed with a slide-out rail system and cable management arm. In the past, I might have overlooked such niceties because, once a system was installed with the OS and applications running smoothly, I probably wouldn't touch it again unless there were some kind of hardware failure. With virtualization, however, physical servers might realistically be accessed to upgrade installed memory, so IT managers should consider using premium racking and cable management options to help accommodate these kinds of changes.

Embedded Server Management

Dell has leveraged the UEFI with special hardware and embedded software. These aren't your father's tools, and server virtualization is again the change driver.

The R710 has a Lifecycle controller, which is a physical component that hosts the embedded management features of the server. I accessed the Dell Unified Server Configurator from the boot menu to access the embedded management system.

IT managers will find investigating the capabilities offered by the Configurator time well-spent. These capabilities include drivers for installation of Windows, Red Hat and SUSE OSes; system diagnostics; and hardware configuration utilities.

I was able to keep my system updated with the latest versions of system firmware by using the Configurator to directly connect to Dell support. I would like to see the ability to point this connection to an internal depot to keep protected workloads from accessing an external site until the security of the update system is more fully proven.

The diagnostic tools were helpful, especially for ensuring that the physical system was fully operational prior to deployment. I also like the idea of having a fairly simple test that can be run by a technician after a system arrives at a branch location to ensure that the internal physical components haven't been damaged in shipment.

The embedded system management tools are a move in the right direction to enable that the R710 will be able to keep pace with the horsepower embodied in the processors and large RAM resource pool.

Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at [email protected].