There has been a dearth of conveniently packaged servers for the midsize market. HP decided to try to change that with the introduction of the HP BladeSystem c3000. I recently tested a well-equipped unit, and overall, my impressions were positive.
The unit is designed especially for small and medium-size businesses. It's particularly geared for scenarios where there is a need for multiple servers based on workloads and number of users but where there isn't always a special room for servers with data center-quality power and server isolation.
While I tested the tower enclosure, a rack-mountable version is available if an industry-standard rack is present at the location. Between four and eight storage and server blades can fit into the unit, depending on the individual blade choices and their respective heights, and the server doesn't require any special power or plugs to be run. It plugs into a standard U.S. wall socket, is rated to an environment of 36 degrees Celsius, and is designed to use that power efficiently and reduce cooling needs in the immediately surrounding environment.
Of course, the bane of small computers is the assorted cavalcade of cables that come along with them. Here, that's been solved -- other than power and network cables, everything else is internal. Storage expansion and data protection is completely internal should you choose to use the blade editions of those solutions -- there is bladed tape, bladed DAS, bladed NAS and bladed SAN available.
The enclosure itself is redundant throughout its core. It has a built-in nonstop midplane and, configured appropriately with the necessary options, you can make the network connection, power supply, cooling fans, storage units and blade servers themselves completely redundant. This makes for an extremely fault-tolerant solution, which is good, as this enclosure is targeted at midsize businesses that are likely to stake their entire IT infrastructures on this unit and its contents.
Finally, HP has made the unit's use and management simple. You can interact with any of the blades in this enclosure by using a standard keyboard, mouse and monitor via a KVM cable that plugs into the front of each blade. You can also use a KVM device to interact with all of the blades from a single console, or use the available management option to perform some console-based tasks through a Web browser. There is also a DVD drive that can be shared among any of the blades using the Onboard Administrator LCD display, making it a simple matter to install software on any of the blades or other devices you have plugged into the enclosure.
My test unit consisted of three BL260c G5 servers, configured as you see in the table below, ensconced in the c3000 tower enclosure that's nicknamed "Big Tony." (The rack version of the enclosure is referred to affectionately by HP folks as "Shorty.")
The unit came preinstalled with the first release candidate edition of Windows Essential Business Server 2008, a three-server suite I have reviewed previously .
What I liked about this enclosure? There was quite a bit, including:
- It was very easy to set up. Although heavy to lug into my test area (the tower version comes on casters), all that was required to get up and running was plugging in the redundant power supplies to a wall outlet and connecting the network cable to the Ethernet switch on the back of the unit. From unboxing to powering on took less than five minutes.
- The quality of the construction was high, and evident. I am no materials engineer, but you could tell this unit was constructed well and built to last. The blades slide in and out with no problems at all. Options are secured into the unit strongly, with little, if any, wiggling. The only flimsy piece I noted was the top front bezel, ironically where the HP logo is located. The meat of the system was well done.
- The available options. I especially enjoyed the cable-free internal environment, one of the main benefits of going with a bladed solution. The enclosure is just big enough to fit all of the different technology options midsize businesses would require for their normal operations, without a lot of wasted space. But what can fit in there is a full-featured range of options from storage to backup to powerful blades themselves.
- The built-in LCD. This makes it easy to see the status and configuration of each of the blades, as well as reconfigure options, shut the blades down and restart them, and other necessary tasks. It was relatively easy to navigate and folds back into its own compartment when not in use.
My biggest disappointment in the unit was the noise level it generated during normal operation. I thought when I first turned the unit on that it would launch itself across the room, given the fan noise. While it quiets down somewhat once the operating system loads and less overall is happening on the system, it is still very loud. In my home office, my wife complained bitterly about the noise. (Obviously this unit is not designed for use in a home office, but it was uncomfortable enough to generate rather serious complaints.)
I wondered to myself regarding the noise factor whether there actually was something amiss with my test unit. I Googled "bladecenter c3000 noise" and was assaulted with a number of hits, including white papers and even a visual demonstration, regarding the c3000's noise level and comparisons with competitive units.
For other servers in an enterprise environment, this isn't really a big deal as you would suspect those machines would be sequestered to a data center. But not all midsize businesses have a data center-like environment available, and in one briefing I noted that HP representatives claimed that this unit could be used under someone's desk. I don't think that is a realistic estimate. It was very difficult to have a conversation with one other person in the same room while this unit was running. With the door open, you could hear the unit across the entire length of my house, which isn't particularly open in nature.
The BladeSystem c3000 definitely is a serious contender that fills a heretofore-unmet need for quality servers in the midsize market. Blades and their advantages are now available to all businesses, not just enterprises. Its quality is high, it has a wide range of options, its line of blade servers is capable and solid, and it comes in a convenient package. If you can stand the noise and have a separate room or closet to store it in, the c3000 deserves your consideration.
Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker on a variety of IT topics. His published works include RADIUS , Hardening Windows , Using Windows Small Business Server 2003 and Learning Windows Server 2003 . His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Windows IT Pro magazine , PC Pro and TechNet Magazine . He also speaks worldwide on topics ranging from networking and security to Windows administration. He is currently an editor for Apress, Inc., a publishing company specializing in books for programmers and IT professionals.