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Fitting blades into a 2U rack format is a tall order, but that's what Dell has done with its new PowerEdge FX2 converged solution. Blocks are set to become the new blades, and may also overshadow conventional rack servers.
- Compact 2U enclosure with flexible configuration options
- Good selection of scalable compute blocks
- Server images and management tools shared with equivalent rack and blade models
- I/O aggregation and optional fibre channel convergence
- Optional PCI expansion capabilities
- No customer changes to enclosure layout allowed
- Single chassis management controller
From around £12,000 (ex. VAT, or $18,000) for typical starting configuration with 1-2 compute plus storage blocks
The design brief for the PowerEdge FX2 was, apparently, to develop the equivalent of the company's M-Series blade architecture in a much smaller 2U rack format. More than that, Dell wanted customers to be able to use the end result to build a converged infrastructure without the need for significant extra investment compared to conventional PowerEdge rack servers and storage. That's a tough task but, with all the components now in place, it appears to have been accomplished.
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It's all in the enclosure
A key component of the FX2 architecture is the modular chassis or enclosure, which is designed to take up two rack units that can be configured to take a mix of slide-in modules — referred to as 'blocks'. Compute, storage and I/O blocks are all available: compute blocks are little more than plug-in servers, each with its own direct-attached storage; storage blocks contain a mix of conventional and flash disks with built-in RAID controllers for sharing across compute blocks; and I/O blocks deliver aggregated Ethernet and Fibre Channel connectivity.
Looking from the front, the 2U enclosure is divided horizontally with all the compute and storage blocks just 1U high and delivered in a mix of full, half and quarter-width formats. Round at the back a pair of additional slots are provided to take I/O blocks with a pair of redundant power supplies alongside plus a slide in chassis management controller. A passive midplane, much like that found on the PowerEdge VRTX, connects all the blocks together, at the same time, connecting the entire contents to shared power and management services.
The engineering is up to Dell's usual impressive standards, with lots of hot-plug fans to cool the enclosure and easy tool-free access to everything of importance. However, although bolt-in sleeves are used to both divide up the available space and provide the midplane connections for the blocks, you're not allowed to change the layout yourself — for example, to switch from half-width to quarter-width slots or vice versa. So if you change your mind you either have to replace the enclosure altogether or add another in the rack.
Customers also have to think ahead when it comes to PCI expansion, as there are two enclosures to choose from, with or without eight PCI-e slots at the back. On the FX2's enclosure these are cabled to a switch on the midplane bus, giving each compute block between 1-4 expansion slots depending on the block arrangement selected.
When it comes to the compute blocks you could be forgiven for feelings of deja vu as Dell has effectively taken existing PowerEdge servers and blades and reworked them into the FX2 format. So much so that the same software images and management tools can be deployed across the new FX2 compute blocks, their original rackmount role models and the M-Series blade servers.
The FC430 compute block is a good example of this. One of the smallest (physically) of the lineup, it's a highly compact quarter-width block with much the same spec as the 13G PowerEdge R430 rack server including two sockets to take the same Xeon E5-2600 v3 processors plus much the same complement of memory.
Likewise, the half-width FC630 is the equivalent of the PowerEdge R630 while the full-width FC830 would have been based on a 4-socket R830, except that Dell decided not to offer the latter model at all, steering customers instead towards the more space-efficient FX2 implementation.
The exception to this rule is the FM120x4, a half-width compute block containing four separate single-socket microservers based on the Intel Atom S2000 System on a Chip (SoC) processor. With no equivalent elsewhere in the PowerEdge family, the FM120x4 compute block allows up to 16 microservers to be configured within an FX2 enclosure, providing a cost-effective, solution for web hosting and other high-density applications.
Storage in a block
A degree of local storage is available on each of the compute blocks using a mix of SATA and SAS magnetic and flash drives. Each FC430, for example, can accommodate two 1.8-inch drives, while the FC630 can hold eight and the FC830 sixteen. However, space constraints really do set a limit on what can be done here, so for data-hungry applications it's possible to slide in half-width FD332 storage blocks, each of which can hold a further sixteen drives.
Equipped with one or two on-board RAID controllers, FX servers can be connected to one or more FD332 storage blocks with direct connectivity to either all 16 devices in the block or split access to eight per server.
I/O and management
The I/O blocks at the rear of the FX2 allow for a variety of connectivity setups, the simplest being Gigabit or 10GbE pass-through modules. Of more interest, however, are so-called 'I/O aggregator' modules that can be used to eliminate redundant SAN and LAN infrastructures, simplifying cable management while also enabling other networking features such as optimized 'east/west' server-to-server traffic within the chassis, LAN/SAN convergence, and rapid network deployment.
The FX2 we tested came with a pair of FN410T aggregators, equipped with four 10GbE UTP ports. Alternatively, the FN410s offers Ethernet fibre connectivity using plug-in SFP modules while the FN2210s can support both Ethernet and Fibre Channel, enabling customers to opt for converged FCoE inside the FX2 chassis while maintaining traditional unconverged Ethernet and native Fibre Channel outside.
Just above the I/O blocks is the slot for the Chassis Management Controller (CMC). Unfortunately, there's only room for one, so redundancy isn't an option, but you do get a familiar graphical interface that makes it easy to stay on top of all the blocks in the FX2 and the enclosure itself. You can also daisy-chain up to 20 FX2 enclosures together for centralised management. Added to which, the compute blocks all have a Dell iDRAC controller on-board for individual remote management.
Convergence for the people
A very flexible and scalable solution, Dell's PowerEdge FX2 lives up to the aim of delivering a blade-like architecture in a 2U rack format. More than that, with the FX block product line now complete, it's proving an affordable and popular alternative to more conventional rack-mount systems.
For small businesses with just one or two servers the FX2 has little to offer, but beyond that it quickly comes into its own, delivering cost-effective convergence together with scalability and huge savings in terms of rack space. It's a hard-to-beat combination that, for SMEs, could be the beginning of the end for the conventional rack server format.