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Deep Dive Into Dell's PowerEdge FX2 Server: Did Someone Just Reinvent The Blade?

Partners say Dell's PowerEdge FX2 is changing the game and represents an entire new modular blade server architecture for converged infrastructure, density and efficiency all within a 2U rack form factor.

Since going private, Dell has been moving at lightning speed to redefine itself as a one-stop shop for enterprise IT solutions. It's an effort that has catapulted the Round Rock, Texas-based company into the data center vanguard. On the front lines of Dell’s server offensive is its PowerEdge FX2, which represents an entire new modular blade server architecture -- unique to Dell -- delivering a converged infrastructure, density and efficiency all within a 2U rack form factor.

Dell partners call the FX2 a radical departure from the usual blade server suspects, delivering a highly modular server that can be easily customized for specific workloads. Dell's new FX2 chassis can blend compute, networking and storage all within a svelte chassis.

"It's a blade server that reinvents the blade," said Scott Winslow, president of Winslow Technology Group, a Boston-based solution provider and Dell partner. The FX2 is the most versatile and modular multinode platform in Dell's product line, according to Winslow. "The FX2 is a cost-effective solution that allows my customers to grow in bite-sized increments all while delivering benefits of blade in a traditional rack form factor," he said.

[Related: Dell, HP, Cisco Look Beyond The Traditional Blade/Rack Server]

With FX2, customers can adopt a building-block approach to their infrastructure. The chassis can be filled with a choice of sled modules each optimized for just about anything users want to throw at it: Web hosting, virtualization, direct-attached storage or running databases.

"FX2 represents a new style of infrastructure where an application isn't tied to one line of business," said Ravi Pendekanti, vice president, Dell Server Solutions. "The FX2 platform allows you to have different workloads on a common infrastructure with the same look and feel and manageability."

The FX2 Lineup

Dell unveiled the FX2 platform in November, billing it as a new line of attack for its PowerEdge server family and its converged infrastructure strategy. Since then, Dell has rolled out concurrent FX2 SKUs including PowerEdge models that give customers a la carte compute options ranging from full-width, half-width and quarter-width modules. It's that type of customization, according to Winslow, that allows customers to dial up and down performance and density based on an application's demand and business demand.

"From a technology perspective, FX2 is a winner," Winslow said. "From a sales perspective, it's a win-win." The 2U form factor gives the FX2 a lower initial capital acquisition cost, minimizes risk and fuels faster time to market, he added.

Dell first rolled out the FX2 FC630, which starts at $3,740 with a base configuration of a single Intel Xeon E5-2603 v3 processor and 4 GB of memory. Then Dell rolled out the PowerEdge FM120, which includes four separate Atom-based microservers in a single module delivering a super-dense server configuration.

Later Dell introduced the FC430 along with the FD332 storage sled that can hold up to 16 drives per module. When paired with four FC430 quarter-width nodes (each of which is a two-socket Xeon server) the combined solution delivers a whopping 80 server nodes per rack.

More recently Dell introduced the FC830, which is a four-socket full-width node for compute-intensive workloads. This product is based on the newest Intel Xeon E5-4600 v3 processor with from four to 18 cores per CPU.

Here is a snapshot of the FX2 product family pricing:

FC630 sled: $3,740

FC630 sled plus FX2 chassis: $5,120 (FX2 chassis for up to four half-width nodes)

FC830 sled: $8,300 (2X Intel Xeon E7-4610 v3 processors and 2X 4 GB memory)

FC830 sled plus FX2 Chassis: $10,150 (FX2 chassis for up to two full-width nodes)

Modular Data Center Approach

"Dell is ahead of its time in terms of modularity," said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst of Moor Insights and Strategy. "It brings server, storage and networking together that allows the optimization of different workloads ranging from legacy to modern applications," he said.

Dell's FX2 is part of a growing modular server trend that makes up only one-tenth of what research firm IDC estimates to be a $51 billion global server market today. Moorhead forecasts that market will grow to represent 30 percent of the market in five years.

Major players include Dell and its FX2 and Hewlett-Packard's Moonshot system. Moorhead said Moonshot is similar but supports both x86 and ARM CPUs with more advanced network fabric. Cisco Systems' UCS M4308 is designed with a modular chassis as well.

Dell’s Pendekanti said comparing FX2 to Moonshot is like comparing apples and kumquats. While Moonshot is targeting niche markets -- such as transcoding and VDI – FX2 targets 98 percent of the market, he said. ’We don’t anticipate FX2 to run in any niche way. Dell expects FX2 to replace what racks are today. This is where software is going to drive convergence," Pendekanti said.

For its part, the FX2 platform supports a number of different CPU configurations ranging from Intel's low-powered Atom processors used for workloads such as Web hosting and scaling up to Intel's premier Xeon processors for high-performance computing jobs.

FX2 also provides a choice of network connectivity options at the rear of the enclosure supporting a max of two PowerEdge FN I/O aggregator modules. Inside the chassis, the FX2 has a passive midplane supporting an eight PCI Express adapter configuration that links compute nodes with storage sleds.

Modularity aside, Dell has broad appeal beyond just the technology to include its focus on usability -- another important selling point of the FX2 platform.

"Purchasing is one thing, but another thing you need to take into consideration is deployment and management," said Ashley Gorakhpurwalla, vice president and general manager at Dell.

FX2 Management

"Customers want it all," Winslow said. "They want legacy support for applications like SAP HANA and the ability to grow to a software-defined storage or networking environment." Dell’s FX2 gives customers the flexibility to support their existing infrastructure in a familiar environment and transition and grow into a Dell ecosystem, he said.

Dell said it engineered its PowerEdge FX2 so it can be managed using its standard iDRAC8 tools and a new version of Dell's Open Manager Essentials. Each node, Dell added, has an integrated Dell Remote Access Controller, identical to Dell's existing PowerEdge hardware.

This allows FX2 to be managed using familiar and easy-to-use Dell tools such as Dell's Active System Manager and its Chassis Management Controller (CMC).

Dell partners also said the FX2's usability tweaks give it an edge over competing blade offerings. One such feature captures a video of a device's boot sequence within the server's CMC dashboard. This gives spotting boot sequence errors as easy as playing back a video.

Taking Aim At The Competition

As companies look to expand their data center options, Dell's pitch goes something like this.

Dell FX2 is denser, has a smaller footprint and has lower cooling costs when compared with Cisco UCS, said Rick Gouin, chief technology officer for Winslow Technology Group. "If you are leasing racks at a co-location facility, density matters. If you are growing your data center and you don't want to knock down walls to grow, density matters," Gouin said.

He said a comparable Cisco UCS system has a footprint of 6U with an eight-blade capacity. That allows a standard rack to support seven chassis. Dell's FX2 FC630 is a 2U form factor supporting four blades each with one rack capacity of 21 chassis. That's a 56 to 84 blade differential, allowing a Dell data center to squeeze 28 more blades per rack.

According to Dell, when looking at virtual desktop infrastructure workloads, one 2U FX2 chassis delivers as much performance as a half a rack of a comparable Cisco UCS installation for a fraction of the cost.

Where Cisco's UCS requires more components as it scales, Dell's FX2 requires fewer, according to Dell. In data center parlance, that's a difference between scaling out with Dell vs. scaling up with Cisco. The fewer components and the more localized the relationship between processor and storage, for example, the better the performance.

Cisco, San Jose, Calif., declined to comment.

"When it comes to modern apps that rely on networking, they rely on a lot of east-west traffic,’ Dell's Gorakhpurwalla said. "One rack talking to core data without having to go through the core switch is key." In a classic rack environment, there are several north-south hops from switch to switch telling you where to go, he said.

With FX2, you go to one switch inside the chassis and go east-west vs. going north-south.

Cisco Partners Chime In

Not surprisingly, partners selling Cisco UCS don't agree with the Dell comparison. They said Cisco's UCS M4308 Modular Chassis is a better comparison to FX2.

The UCS M4308 is a 2U chassis, supporting eight cartridges with each cartridge supporting two nodes. That delivers 16 servers per 2U chassis with massive amounts of scale-out capacity optimized for workloads that include cloud-scale computing, high-performance computing, online gaming, engineering design automation, data analytics and risk modeling, partners said.

In the end, the debate between Dell and Cisco partners won’t soon subside -- no matter how lopsided or fairly matched the SKU-to-SKU and workload-to-workload comparison.

While Cisco and HP have been dominant forces in blade architecture, with FX2 Dell has managed to "out blade" the blade kingpins with FX2, Moorhead said. "The FX2 is a better blade than a traditional blade server," he said.

"If you are just looking for a system to run your 15-year-old app, the FX2 might not be the best solution. But if you need a system with easy manageability and can also run modern cloud and scale out workloads you should be considering the FX2," Moorehead said.

For Winslow Technology Group, the FX2 continues to gain momentum with its customers. "We think the FX2 is pioneering," Winslow said. "We think it points to Dell's ability to listen to its customers and come up with creative solutions. We like having something unique to walk in to customer engagements with. We are getting a lot of 'wows' from our customers with the FX2. We like 'wows.' They make us look good. They make Dell look good. And makes it easier to be a trusted adviser."

This article originally appeared as an exclusive on the CRN Tech News App for iOS and Windows 8.

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