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Are Dell's Energy Smart servers really smart at all?

$270 extra buys X amounts of brain

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A couple of years ago, Dell launched a new line of so-called Energy Smart servers. They were billed as modified versions of the company's standard PowerEdge systems, which cost a bit more up front but helped customers save more money over the long haul by reducing power consumption. But, we wondered, how smart were the Energy Smart systems here in 2008. Or more precisely, is Dell living up to its green computing claims?

Customers who pay close attention to Dell's website will notice that there seems to be very little difference today between the Energy Smart and Regular gear. For example, Dell in 2006 bragged about the more efficient power supplies, memory, disks and fans in the Energy Smart hardware.

But we've discovered that most of the components in the two lines are now exactly the same. The fans are the same. The power supplies are the same. The disk drives are the same. They even have the same SKUs or product codes.

In addition, Dell likes to say that the Energy Smart gear costs about $100 more than the Regular systems. We, however, configured a pair of PowerEdge 2950s with one Xeon L5410 2.33GHz chip, 4GB of memory, a 73GB hard drive and the Energy Smart power supply and found that the Energy Smart system ran $2,795 versus $2,456 for the Regular system.

So what exactly is the advantage of the Energy Smart gear, if you can configure a similar, cheaper box through the Regular website?

To Dell's credit, the company actually had an answer or two to this question.

Albert Esser, Dell's VP of power and infrastructure solutions, walked us through the fine differences between the two systems.

With regard to the processors, you will see that they have different SKUs even though you're buying the exact same low voltage versions of Intel's Xeon chips. As it turns out, the unique Energy Smart SKU will kick some BIOS tweaks into action when the chip is inserted into a system. "We fine-tune the BIOS settings and other functions to get the best performance per watt out of the available resources," Esser said. On average, those tweaks translate into a 14 per cent performance per watt improvement over regular systems. Which is to be applauded. But how much extra does a BIOS tweak cost?

On the memory front, you'll find different SKUs as well even though you're buying the same capacity and overall performance. Esser explained that the Energy Smart memory is selected by the memory makers to ensure that it has the best possible performance per watt characteristics while not sacrificing overall performance. So, basically, Dell gets the best members of any memory batch and pops those into the Energy Smart systems.

As for the power supplies, fans and hard drives, Dell admits that there's no difference between the parts these days. The company says that intense customer interest in the Energy Smart components convinced it to make the components available across the entire PowerEdge product line. And, in fact, Regular PowerEdge server customers are encouraged on Dell's web site to buy the Energy Smart power supplies because there's a hefty discount on the units, at the time of writing.

The server configuration page, however, warns that the Energy Smart supplies "may cause a delay" in shipping. Dell tells us that it's aware of this problem and that "all issues will be fixed by the third quarter".

As mentioned, Dell used to say that the Energy Smart gear would cost about $100 more than the Regular systems. It's now telling us that "the premium varies between about $180 and $400, depending on customer configurations and regions." On average, the Energy Smart systems cost $270 more in the US, although the worldwide average is still $100 extra, according to Dell.

Taking that US price, we get a system today that's quite a bit more expensive while having less differentiation than what Dell originally targeted. That said, the company expects customers to recoup the extra costs within about a year of purchase via lower energy costs. And it insists that part of the extra price comes from its quasi-consulting work in pre-configuring an energy efficient server. It's done the box clicking for you.

All told, there's actual meat behind Dell's Energy Smart program, but you really have to dig in to discover the major differences between these specialized systems and the regular gear.

Following our questioning, Dell is considering ways that it might better highlight the variations of the two server lines, and the company plans to make more tweaks to the Energy Smart gear in the months to come. ®

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