IBM System X3550 review

£3575
Price when reviewed

The X3550 is the first in a series of major improvements to IBM’s Intel Server family. It’s also the first production server equipped with Intel’s long-awaited Dempsey processor.

Heralded as Intel’s answer to AMD’s 200-series Opterons, Dempsey is the codename for Intel’s Series 5000 range of 65nm dual-core Xeons, and the X3550 comes equipped with a pair of 3.73GHz 5080 models. It’s also endowed with the new Greencreek 5000X chipset, which comes with dual independent 1,066MHz front side buses. Intel is actually aiming this chipset at workstation duties. IBM told us the reason it chose this over the Blackford 5000P/V server chipsets is that it has a snoop filter, which targets performance over value. The Series 5000 family comprises eight members, but IBM is only likely to offer the four 1,066MHz FSB models – the other four employ a 667MHz FSB.

With the imminent availability of Intel’s low-power Woodcrest Series 5100 processor, you have to ask why anyone would buy into Dempsey now. The first point of note is that the 5000 chipsets support Dempsey and Woodcrest, so it’s possible to upgrade. Furthermore, Dempsey is being offered as a lower-cost alternative to Woodcrest. However, Dempsey-based choices will be limited, as one of IBM’s main competitors intends to skip it completely in favour of Woodcrest.

The X3550 is the first example of IBM’s new Systems branding and heralds a complete redesign of all its pedestal, rack and blade server products. The eServer and xSeries monikers are replaced by the System family name, with the model number indicating what hardware each model possesses. The top panel has separate hatches for accessing the fan assemblies without having to power the server down, while the front panel is home to a number of interesting features. To allow unobstructed airflow through the chassis, a small drive cage is fitted to the left, and the review system came with four hot-swap bays using 2.5in SAS drives. Alternatively, you can go for a pair of 3.5in hot-swap SAS or SATA drives, or two cold-swap SATA drives.

The system came with a single power supply, but there’s room for a second, and the handles and release catches have been changed for easier access. The network and dedicated management ports are arranged in a neat row at the back and equipped with plastic catches and locks to keep the network cables in place. This also makes them easier to remove. Even the rack-mount guide rails have been improved to allow for easier server fitting and removal.

IBM has pulled out all the stops with the internal design, which is exemplary. It’s impossible to miss the enormous heatsinks and these are accompanied by two fan banks, with a total of six dual-rotor units fitted. The fans are all hot-swappable, and noise levels aren’t excessive considering the amount of air that needs to be shifted. The server also supports fully buffered DIMM (FB-DIMM) memory, which improves performance by using advanced memory buffers, serial data paths and improved error detection.

RAID comes as standard, with an IBM ServeRAID-8k controller partnered by 32MB of cache memory. This uses a dedicated DIMM socket on the motherboard and can be upgraded with a different card with extra cache memory and a battery backup pack. Another slot on the other side supports an optional Remote Supervisor Adapter SlimLine II card, which offers remote browser access to the server regardless of its condition. Expansion options look very good, as PCI-X and PCI Express 8x slots are available. On the review system, these were both converted to low-profile PCI Express slots with separate riser cards. There’s another first in the network department, as the pair of Broadcom Gigabit Ethernet controllers also incorporate TOEs (TCP offload engines).

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