Blade servers are expensive and complicated, right? Plus you have to add storage and networking on top and management can be an issue, too, can’t it? Well maybe, but not if you opt for Dell’s new PowerEdge VRTX (pronounced “vertex”), an innovative all-in-one solution that delivers blades, storage, networking and management in a compact and ready to use format that can be used to host a wide range of workloads.
A Different Take On Blades
Available as either a free-standing tower on wheels or a 5U rack unit, the PowerEdge VRTX is, in effect, a self-contained datacentre with slots to take four Dell M520 or M620 blades. A variety of configurations are available, the review system shipping with two M620 blades each equipped with twin Xeon E5-2650 processors (8 cores and 16 threads per processor) supported by 96GB of memory and an on-board PERC RAID controller connected to two 300GB 10K rpm SAS hard disks for local boot and storage.
Essentially the same modules as used in Dell’s full size blade servers but with different firmware, the VRTX modules slide into a managed backplane buried inside the compact yet very well-built chassis unit. This, in turn, allows the blades to connect to other shared resources inside the chassis, and it’s here that things start to get interesting.
All For One
Storage is the first of the shared resources with a choice of either twenty-five SFF (2.5-inch) or twelve 3.5-inch drive bays, configured when ordering. All bays are hot-pluggable to take SAS, near-line SAS or SSD drives. Up to 48TB can be configured altogether, the review system sporting ten SFF SAS disks (300GB 10,000 rpm) to provide a, not inconsiderable, 3TB of raw capacity.
Rather than share this storage out over a SAN, however, a new shared PERC8 RAID controller id pugged onto the VRTX motherboard to manage the storage, presenting it as a series of virtual disks which are seen as directly attached local storage by the blades.
VMware and Hyper-V hypervisors are both certified to work with this setup as is Windows Server, but Linux users will either have to make do with virtual machines or wait a while for native drivers for the shared PERC8 controller to be developed.
Networking is similarly built-in and shared via an integrated switch equipped with 16 internal and eight external ports. The internal ports are used to connect to the blades over the backplane, each M620 attaching by two ports through a dual-port 10GbE mezzanine card while the integrated Gigabit NIC on the M520 can use four. The switch itself is limited to Gigabit at present, although a 10GbE implementation is planned, and there are with useful link aggregation, VLAN and QoS facilities on top of basic L2 switching capabilities.
Lastly, but by no means less interesting, is the ability to share PCIe expansion cards. Eight PCIe slots are available, three for full-height/full-length cards and five for low-profile/half-length adapters. Each can be individually assigned to any of the four blades, making it possible to add extra network ports or connect to a fibre channel SAN using standard adapters rather have to add proprietary modules as in a standard blade enclosure.
Management Galore, And More
Of course you need to be able manage all of these options so the VRTX also comes stuffed full of hardware and firmware to do just that, the review system shipping with the option of dual Chassis Management Controllers and two Gigabit Ethernet ports for remote access.
A small colour display on the front is used to perform basic setup (unfortunately rotated 90 degrees on the rack configuration), but once configured with an IP address it’s over to a browser and a Web interface very similar to that used by Dell’s iDRAC lifecycle controller.
Up to nine VRTX chassis units can be managed from the CMC console making it easy to check on the status of the various components as well as configure storage, networking and PCIe slot assignments. Plus there’s a neat mapping interface to help identify VRTX systems deployed across multiple locations.
From the CMS console you can also drill down to the iDRAC7 controllers on the blades to manage them as you would standalone servers, as well as connect to each blade through a remote console. Alternatively ports on the front of each blade allow for attachment of a KVM “crash cart” for local operation. To help with software installs a local DVD-RW drive can also be specified and assigned to individual blades as required.
Redundant power is yet another option with slots for up to four hot-swap supplies plus options through the CMC console to set power budgets and remotely power blades and other components on and off. Cooling, meanwhile, is looked after by a combination of conventional hot-swap fans and “doughnut” blowers which, together with a high level of acoustic shielding, make for whisper quiet operation. It’s not silent, especially when pushed hard, but most of the time makes less noise than a standalone server enabling the PowerEdge VRTX to be deployed in open plan offices without being disruptive.
The VRTX Verdict
It’s hard not to be impressed by the PowerEdge VRTX which addresses most, if not all, of the issues associated with other “cluster in a box” products. Initially marketed as a small to medium sized business solution it has garnered interest with corporate buyers too, particularly those otherwise faced with deploying multiple servers and shared storage out to branch office and retail outlets. According to Dell, companies involved in oil and gas exploration have, similarly, shown an interest – as an on-board ship solution.
We were most impressed by the completeness of the solution enabling customers to install it in one hit without having to add anything else or modify existing infrastructures. We also liked the flexibility of the shared storage, network and PCIe expansion options which, added to comprehensive management facilities as standard, allow it to be installed by relatively untrained staff then configured and managed centrally.
Pricewise, the VRTX has a lot going for it too. The review system came in at just over £19,000 (ex. VAT), which is a lot less than it could cost to get a similar setup using standard tower or blade servers. And it could be a lot less, a base configuration with just one management controller plus dual M520 blades with one processor each and three 1TB drives retailing for around £8,500 (ex. VAT). Again a good price when compared against conventional multi-server alternatives and, if you need the computing power, flexibility and management capabilities, a superior solution to boot.