IBM eServer xSeries 336 review

£6723
Price when reviewed

Despite AMD’s increasing profile in the server dual-core processing market, IBM has never given it more than a passing nod of recognition: its offerings have extended to nothing more than a single rack and blade server. This has allowed IBM to offer a basic dual-core solution, but for its main server product line it has had to wait on Intel to get its act together. The xSeries 336 brings dual-core Xeons into the family, and in this exclusive review we see what IBM has done with Intel’s Paxville Xeon DP.

IBM eServer xSeries 336 review

The 336 is aimed primarily at file and print services, web serving and distributed database management functions. It’s a compact 1U chassis, which delivers superb build quality and is certainly up with the likes of HP in this department. Design isn’t bad either, as the 336 offers a number of useful features. For storage, you have a single drive cage on the left of the front panel, with IBM offering three options. If fault tolerance isn’t an issue, you can opt for a pair of standard SATA hard disks. This provides a simple swap function, which effectively means you need to switch the server off to replace one. For hot-swap capabilities, you can go for a pair of 3.5in Ultra320 SCSI drives or a quartet of 2.5in SCSI drives. A really smart feature is that the drive cages are self-contained units that can be removed completely, as they have ports for power and the controller interface at the rear.

The motherboard has a single-channel Ultra320 controller, which offers integrated RAID mirroring in a two-drive configuration. However, the price includes IBM’s ServeRAID 6i card, which is based round an Adaptec ASR-2020S chipset and comes with 128MB of cache memory plus a battery backup pack. This brings RAID5 into the equation and is the ZCR (zero-channel RAID) variety, so it commandeers the existing controller channel without extra cabling.

Tucking the hard disks to one side has given IBM a lot more leeway in internal design. This allows cooling to be better handled and the 336 has fan modules dedicated to the power supply, processors and chassis. Bear in mind the front panel on this specific model has no room for floppy and CD-ROM drives, but IBM has squeezed in a small pop-out display pad that provides direct access to its unique light-path diagnostics. This has been a staple feature of IBM servers for years now and, in the event of nearly any component failure, a glance at this matrix of 18 LEDs will reveal the culprit.

IBM has put a lot of thought into cooling, as the chassis has two banks of strategically placed fans. To the left, three handle the power supplies and hard disk bay, while a separate bank to the right looks after the processors. Each fan module is hot-swappable and the chassis has hinged flaps in the lid, so you only need pull the server partway out of the rack to access a failed unit. The server also comes with a cleverly designed cradle that slots onto the rear of the chassis and ensures the cabling is protected when the server is moved. Power fault tolerance is good, too, with a pair of 585W dual-redundant supplies included in the price.

The bundled Director is the standard management tool for IBM’s servers, blade servers, workstations and laptops. It requires an agent loaded locally for the system to be remotely managed. Director can use existing DB2, SQL Server and Oracle databases or will install its own copy of Apache Derby. It provides plenty of information about monitored servers and details on critical system components such as processors, memory and cooling fans. You can link errors or failures to an impressive selection of event actions including email, network broadcast and SNMP traps. When compared with HP’s Insight Manager and Dell’s OpenManage, IBM’s Director has come in for some criticism for being dated, poorly designed and difficult to use. However, with the latest version (5.1) some work has been done to remedy these shortcomings, with an improved interface and more features and alerting capabilities.

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