REVIEW: Dell PowerEdge R720

After much delay, Intel’s new Xeon E5-2600 processor finally got the official go-ahead in March with the big name vendors all pledging support for the new 32nm chips, including Dell which has started the product ball rolling with the new PowerEdge R720.

The first of a twelfth generation of PowerEdge servers, the R720 is a 2U rack mount server with sockets to take two of the new Xeons. As such it will replace the popular Xeon 5500/5600 powered R710, delivering greater processing power as well all a huge increase in memory, even more flexible storage capabilities and numerous management updates.

Prices start from as little as £1,759 (ex. VAT), although that is for a very basic specification and most customers will end up paying a lot more. Our review server, for example, was configured to appeal to mid-size companies looking for a virtualisation platform and would set you back for £7,614 (ex VAT).
[lineheading]Faster processors, more memory[/lineheading]

Although far from the only reason for buying the PowerEdge R720, the Xeon E5-2600 processors are the big draw. Based on Intel’s Sandy Bridge EP architecture there are some 16 implementations on offer here, from a 1.8GHz quad-core through 6-core to top of the range 8-core chips clocked at up to 2.9GHz. Support for HyperThreading and improved Turbo Boost 2.0 technology is available on all but the two cheapest SKUs with TDPs varying from 70 to 150 Watts.

The review server had processors from near the top of this range, in the form of a pair of 2.7GHz E5-2680s, sporting 8-cores and 20MB of L3 cache each. These are located in sockets in the middle of an all-new Dell motherboard surrounded by 24 DIMM sockets capable of holding an eye-watering 768GB of memory, up from 288GB on the R710.

Ours had a relatively modest 64GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 RAM, and it’s worth noting that RAM upgrades can really bump up the price especially for those looking to get close to the maximum amount. And if all this isn’t enough it’s possible to equip the R720 with nVIDIA or AMD GPU accelerators with room for two of these double-width adapters in amongst the seven PCIe 3.0 expansion slots provided.

[lineheading]Chassis and storage options[/lineheading]

Housed in much the same chassis as the R710, build quality is superb with lots of hot-swap options as standard, including redundant power supplies and a variety of storage configurations. Up to eight 3.5-inch drive bays can be had here or 16 if you go for 2.5-inch disks. A completely new extended chassis is also available for customer looking for yet more internal storage, designated the R720XD (from £1,849 ex. VAT) with the same basic spec as the R720 but capable of accommodating an impressive twenty six 2.5-inch drives inside its 2U case.

A variety of SATA and SAS disks can be ordered from Dell to go inside the server with a number of SSD drives also on offer for those who can afford them. Added to which the R720 can also be configured with up to four Dell Express Flash PCIe SSDs, designed to plug in at the front but with direct connection to the PCIe bus for even faster performance.

On the controller side an on-board SATA interface is built-in to which software-based RAID can be added (Dell refers to this as the PERC S110) for Level 0, 1, 5 and 10 protection. However, the software involved is Windows-only and the SATA interface limited to just four 3.5in 3Gbps disks making it something of a budget option. Most customers will, therefore, opt for one of several hardware RAID controllers with internal and external HBA adapters available.

The review system had an internal HBA, a PERC H710P located in a socket of its own rather than one of the PCIe expansion slots. This new 8Gbps card also came with 512MB of battery-backed cache and for our tests was cabled to a set of five 300GB 10K rpm SAS disks, although it can handle up to 32 SATA, SSD or SSD disks altogether. It also provides support for RAID 0,1, 5 and 6 arrays and is likely to be a very popular option.

[lineheading]And there’s more[/lineheading]

Networking is looked after by a Dell Select network adapter which, like the RAID controller is located in a custom slot of its own. The one on the review system sported four Gigabit Ethernet connections without, again, taking up a PCIe slot, plus there are other Select network adapters that can be specified including dual-port 10GbE cards.

A separate gigabit network interface is also to be found on the back panel, giving access to the iDRAC remote management controller, upgraded to release 7 as part of the twelfth generation refresh. That includes version 2 of Dell’s unique Lifecycle Controller with a much improved Web interface giving easier access to important data along with enhanced power monitoring and management tools.

All models come with iDRAC 7 Express as standard while ours had the optional Enterprise upgrade, now a simple license update adding useful KVM over IP capabilities including a graphical remote console and virtual media support.

And lastly, as might be expected on a server widely used as a virtualisation host, it’s possible to boot the R720 straight to an embedded hypervisor. More than that Dell is leading the pack with an adapter uniquely equipped to take dual SD cards each with a copy of the hypervisor code to provide for immediate failover should one of the images get corrupted.

[lineheading]A lot of server for the money[/lineheading]

The extras on the review server certainly helped push up the price of the PowerEdge R720 , but don’t let that put you off. The end result is an impressive yet still very affordable server that can be used to host a variety of enterprise class applications besides its most obvious role as a virtualisation platform.

Regardless of what spec you go for the new Xeon E5 processors give the server a huge performance boost compared to the R710 with masses of memory to go with it plus more storage options than you can shake a stick at. Add in all the management features, the usual warranty options and Dell support and it hits the 2U2P sweet spot very nicely, with yet more twelfth generation PowerEdge products bound to follow.

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