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I have a few questions on a potential server setup. First, the situation:

Last year we bought an IBM x3500 server with 2 Xeon E5410's, 9GB RAM, 6 HDDs. The original intent for this server was to replace the old exchange e-mail server. It was brought in, set up, and then shortly after we switched to gmail. Shortly after that my predecessor left for greener pastures, and finally I was hired.

So this nice server is now sitting (mostly) idle. This year I have budget again for one server, and of course I want to put this other server to work. I'm thinking about the best use for the two server, and I think I finally have a plan for what I want to do with them.

The idea is to use the two newer servers as a pair of VM hosts. I will set up each server with the same 8 VMs, but divide up the load so that only 4 are active per physical host. That means I've normally got >2GB RAM + 2 cores per host. I've done some load testing to pick out what servers to convert to virtual, and chose them so that each host will be capable of handling the entire set of 8 by itself in a pinch with 1 core and 1GB RAM, but would be very taxed to do so. This should take our data center from 13 total servers down to 7. The "servers" I'm replacing are mostly re-purposed desktops, so I'm more than happy to be able to do this.

Now it's time to go shopping for the new server. I'd like my two hosts to match as closely as possible, and so I'm looking at IBM again. It also helps that we have some educational matching grant money from IBM that I need to use to help pay for this system (we're a small private college).

So finally, (if you're not bored already), we come to my questions:

  1. Am I missing anything big or obvious in this plan? I'm a little worried about network performance since the VM hosts will only have 4 nics total where 8 used to be, but I don't think it will be a problem. Is there anything else like this I might be overlooking? Am I making it even too complicated?
  2. IBM no longer has a good analog to last year's server. If I want to match the performance (8 cores, 9GB RAM, 1333mhz front side bus, 6 spindles), I have to spend quite a bit more than we paid last year: $2K+, or nearly a 33% cost increase. This only brings a marginal increase in performance. The alternative to stay in budget is to take a hit on the fsb down to 800mhz or cut the number of cores in half, neither of which is attractive.

    The main cost culprit is the processor. IBM no longer offers the E5410. It's listed as a part, but not available in any of the server configs I've looked at. I'm considering getting the cheapest 800mhz fsb dual core xeon I can configure and then buying the E5410's separately. That's still an extra $350 I wasn't counting on, but that's better than $2K. I want to know what others think of this - will it work or will I end up with the wrong motherboard or some other issue? Am I missing a simple way to configure the server I really want?

  3. I don't really intend to do this, but one option to save some money back is to omit the redundant power supply. Since my redundancy plan for these system is to switch over to a completely different host, the extra power isn't fully necessary. That said, it's still very helpful to avoid even short downtimes while I switch over VMs. Has anyone done this?
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Shared storage? –  Oskar Duveborn Apr 30 '10 at 11:11
No shared storage –  Joel Coel Apr 30 '10 at 13:17

3 Answers 3

I don't think you'll find any current offering matching your price point in Dell HP or IBM, unless you consider used/recertified an option. Lenovo may be worth looking at, I think this site runs on Lenovo hardware and I haven't heard too many complaints.

I'm not sure I understand how the redundant power supply helps in the switching of VM's, perhaps you can clarify. But if they both are getting their power from the same grid, they're not providing "power" redundancy, only helping if the power supply itself fails, which is pretty rare, at least for the first couple of years life cycle, and if you need to save a few bucks, certainly not the worst place to do it.

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thanks for your question, I love this type - here goes;

Firstly I'm going to assume you'll be using the free version of ESXi v4U1 - let us know if this isn't the case.

There's almost no direct benefit to you matching two servers in this way if you're using the free version of ESXi as you won't run into the mismatching-processors issue that vMotion can cause, there's also no technical reason to stick with IBM.

Now onto the techie bit, you're in luck - for ESX you'll find that a single newer 4-core E55xx or E56xx-series Xeon will overall match your dual E54xx-series Xeons - I'm sure someone could possibly design a test where this wouldn't be the case but this will generally be the case. If you believe that your load would be managed perfectly satisfactory on your existing 2 x E5410's then you can save money by buying a single E55/E56xx - but you can save even more money by using this extra power available to you and buying one of the single-processor-capable 34/35xx-series processors.

Now IBM don't appear to have any appropriate servers with these chips in (unless I missed one anyway) - but Dell do, I've been looking around and their PowerEdge T310 can be configured with a single X3440 (don't go for the X3430, it has half the threads of this one), 12GB of fast memory (which should be all you need due to ESX's memory page sharing) and a single 500GB disk (you don't mention your requirement for this so I've taken the default) works out at about $1,350 - so by the time you add some more/bigger/faster disks to get what you want you should be fine for your budget, you also have the option of single or redundant power supply (I'd always go for a pair myself but the choice is yours) and you can always buy the redundant one at a later date when you have the money. You might also consider the HP ML330 G6, which is a similar spec and roughly the same cost but supports the 35xx-series as well as the E55/56xx-series if you wanted to add processors later.

I hope this helps.

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I have to stick with IBM - they have a program where they match money donated by alumni who work for them, but we can only use the money on their product. –  Joel Coel Apr 30 '10 at 13:18

Rather than buying a second server this year, I would recommend investing in shared storage and some full (educationally priced) VMWare licenses with VMotion. This will put you in a good position in subsequent years to add on incrementally to your VM infrastructure, and to get the most out of it by doing things like automatic load balancing and recovery. Subsequent servers simply add memory and processing power to your mass of VM hardware.

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