Review: Dell's 13G PowerEdge R730xd, a workhorse server with a kick

Hardware improvements, rich storage options, and plenty of room for expansion add up to a very fast, flexible 2U workhorse

New generations of commodity servers typically deliver incremental updates to CPU, memory, power, and storage. It's not often that you see real innovation making its way into these systems. With the release of the 13th-generation PowerEdge R730xd, Dell has shown that innovation still lives in 2U, two-socket servers.

Specific use cases for the PowerEdge R730xd include Microsoft Exchange, with the ability to support a large number of mailboxes on a single system. You could use the same configuration for a high-end Microsoft SharePoint server. Another excellent use case for the PowerEdge R730xd comes is software-defined storage based on products such as Microsoft Storage Spaces, Ceph for Openstack, and VMware Virtual SAN. Total available storage can also be expanded with the addition of a Dell Storage MD1400 direct-attached storage enclosure.

[ Also reviewed on InfoWorld: VMware Virtual SAN turns storage inside-out | 10 excellent new features in Windows Server 2012 R2 | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

Versatility is a major theme of the 13G PowerEdge R730xd, as you can configure the system in multiple ways. If it's storage you need, you could go with 24 small-form-factor drives in the front, plus two in the rear for more than 100TB of storage using 4TB drives. You can also include up to four Express Flash NVMe PCIe SSDs to satisfy the highest I/O demands.

For scoring this review, I looked at performance, availability, scalability, management, build quality, and overall value, or "bang for the buck." The PowerEdge R730xd excels in every category, but especially in performance and scalability. With 18-core Intel Xeon CPUs and new DDR4 memory parts available sometime after initial launch, you'll be able to pack 72 processing threads and 1.5TB of memory in a single server.

Hardware innovations push performanceIt's not uncommon for the next generation of servers to track new releases of Intel's processors. Intel's latest Haswell processor coupled with DDR4 memory bring more speed and lower power requirements in the same 2U form factor. My review unit came equipped with 64GB of DDR4 RAM and two Intel Xeon E5-2690 v3 processors, which run at 2.6GHz. Each CPU has 12 cores and can handle two threads per core for an impressive 24 threads per CPU. The new Xeon will provide as many as 18 cores in its highest-end versions.

On the storage side, my review unit came with five Dell-labeled, 200GB 1.8-inch 6Gbps SSDs and five Seagate ST2000NM0023 2TB 7200RPM SAS 3.5-inch HDDs, accessible from the front. Two more 2.5-inch drives on the rear provide a RAID-1 mirror for the operating system disk. This leaves all drives on the front available as user-configurable storage. The innovative 1.8-inch SSD housing allows for the installation of up to 18 front-loaded devices.

Dell's latest PERC RAID controllers fully support Microsoft's Storage Spaces and make it possible to configure individual drives as non-RAID devices. My review unit came with the Dell PERC H730P controller, which supports transfer rates up to 12Gbps. Expansion options include six PCIe 3.0 slots, plus a dedicated slot for the RAID controller.

Other hardware innovations include dual internal SD cards to support a redundant boot device for VMware ESXi. The SD cards are mirrored and allow the system to continue to operate if one device fails. In case of failure, a system fault will trigger allowing the administrator to issue an orderly shutdown for repair. Dell developed its fault-resilient memory in conjunction with VMware to provide redundancy for critical system memory. Intel estimates between a 40 to 50% power saving at the memory level due to the lower-voltage (1.2 volts) DDR4 memory. This savings could add up to significant amounts when you max out the memory on one of these systems.

New management and software optionsIf you've ever walked into a data center attempting to find one server among many racks of servers or even one server inside a tall rack, you will appreciate the new, Near Field Communication (NFC)-equipped front panel on the R730xd. Simply press the button on the panel, then touch an Android smartphone with the Dell OpenManage Mobile app installed; you'll have access to a wealth of information about the server without opening the lid.

You'll need version 1.1 of the app, now available from the Google Play Store, which adds the NFC capability to directly connect to the Dell server. The previous version required entering the IP address of the server's iDRAC controller to make the connection from your mobile device. Dell's 13G servers come with version 8 of the iDRAC management platform, which, in addition to introducing the iDRAC "Quick Sync" NFC interface, includes features to accommodate new power and thermal profiles in the Intel processors.

Finally, a new software option for Windows Server 2012 R2 deployments, called SanDisk DAS Cache, lets you take full advantage of any available SSD in the R730xd to create either write-back or write-through cache. SanDisk DAS Cache attaches to a specific disk volume on the server to act as an accelerator, working in addition to the native caching available in Windows Server 2012 R2.

Dell has hit a long home run with the PowerEdge R730xd, covering a wide range of use cases and delivering a powerful 2U server with lots of room to grow. With 192GB of memory (rounding out a nice configuration for a virtual machine host), the pricing of my review unit would be close to $19,000 -- an excellent deal. Starting price for a minimally configured system comes in at $2,579. You can start small and grow large without breaking the bank. Ultimately, the new Dell PowerEdge R730xd has everything you would want in a workhorse server -- and then some.

Read more about data center in InfoWorld's Data Center Channel.

This story, "Review: Dell's 13G PowerEdge R730xd, a workhorse server with a kick" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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