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Lenovo punts Nehalem server quartet

A little slow on the uptake

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If Chinese PC vendor Lenovo wants to be a contender in the global server racket, it is going to have to pick up the pace a little bit. Which it's doing. A little.

Intel launched their Nehalem EP Xeon 5500 processors back in March, and all of the key tier-one server makers had at least some gear using the new chips ready to roll on announcement day or soon thereafter.

Now it's July, and Lenovo is just getting its ThinkServer machines out the door using the new Intel chips. This is not exactly what it takes to compete with HP, Dell, and Sun Microsystems, as well as x64 server partner and former owner of a chunk of Lenovo's PC business, IBM.

With the economy being awful, server sales tanking, and Lenovo only formally being in the server business since last September, such a delay may not be fatal - but it probably doesn't instill confidence in Lenovo's sales channel.

The delay, however, may have been intentional - at least in the United States and Europe. IBM has been licensing System x tower and rack server technology to Lenovo since January 2008, a deal that allows Lenovo to make and sell machines that look an awful lot like Big Blue's System x iron. IBM may have provisions in the deal, the details of which were never divulged, that give it a head start in certain geographical markets or with certain products.

In any case, Lenovo has now introduced four new Nehalem EP boxes, two towers and two racks, and they're all two-socket machines based on Intel's 5500 chipset series.

The TD200 tower is based on the 5520 chipset and sports up to a dozen DDR3 slots to keep those memory-hungry quad-core Xeon 5500 processors fed. Lenovo is supporting Xeons running at between 1.86GHz and 2.53GHz, and is shying away from the hotter 95 watt and 130 watt parts that run at slightly higher clock speeds, and which the SMBs Lenovo is targeting with this tower don't want anyway.

Using 8GB DDR memory, the machine would top out at 96GB, but it looks like Lenovo is only supporting 1GB, 2GB, or 4GB memory cards at the moment. The server can support up to eight 2.5-inch disks or four 3.5-inch disks, and has support for every kind of RAID except panty.

The machine has six PCI-Express 2.0 slots and a two-port Gigabit Ethernet NIC on the mobo. It looks like the TD200 (PDF) is basically an IBM System x3400 M2. Or visa versa - we don't know who is designing and making what in this IBM-Lenovo partnership.

The ThinkServer TD200x (PDF) is a beefier Nehalem EP tower, with sixteen DDR3 slots on the mobo, spanning up to 128GB using 8GB DIMMs. Only the E5520 (2.26GHz) and E5530 (2.4GHz) processors are currently supported. The TD200x has double the disk capacity of the other Nehalem tower, with support for up to sixteen 2.5-inch SATA or SAS drives.

This TD200x box looks like an IBM System x3500 M2 (PDF) with the labels changed.

On the rack front, there are two ThinkServer boxes. The RD210 (PDF) is a 1U rack server that supports sixteen memory slots for that 128GB max using 8GB DIMMs and has room for six 2.5-inch SAS or SATA drives.

The machine's motherboard has the same Intel 5520 chipset as the other two ThinkServers, and has an integrated RAID controller, a two-port Gigabit Ethernet NIC, and two PCI-Express 2.0 x16 slots. Lenovo is supporting Xeon 5500 series processors running at between 1.86GHz and 2.53GHz in the ThinkServer RD210.

This ThinkServer RD210 is essentially an IBM System x3550 M2 (PDF), best as I can figure.

The beefier rack-based Nehalem EP machine from Lenovo is the RD220 (PDF), which is a 2U box that supports 128GB of main memory and that has room for up to a dozen 2.5-inch SAS or SATA drives. It has up to four PCI-Express 2.0 slots and that dual-port Gigabit Ethernet NIC, and it can have the same Xeon 5500 chips running at between 1.86GHz and 2.53GHz as the RD210.

The RD220 looks as if it's really an IBM System x3650 M2 (PDF).

All of the ThinkServers support Windows Server 2008 in the Standard, Enterprise, Small Business Server, and Essential Business Server flavors. Novell is the preferred Linux supplier at Lenovo, and customers can also get SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 on the new ThinkServers.

As for server virtualization hypervisors, VMware's ESX Server 3.5 and ESXi 3.5 are certified on the machines, as is Hyper-V for Windows 2008 and the Xen hypervisors inside of SLES 10 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.

Given the proximity between Red Hat and Lenovo in North Carolina, you'd think they'd be best buddies. Anyway, if RHEL didn't make the cut as a preferred Linux operating system, it is at least designated as a hypervisor. Yes, that is silly.

The ThinkServers come with an Integrated Management Module (IMM), the same out-of-band service processor that IBM's System x boxes have, which allows the server to be monitored and managed remotely, even if it is crashed.

The machines also have a-la-carte ThinkPlus data backup, installation, and training services, as well as add-on bundled service offerings that give 24x7 support for hardware and software, onsite hardware installation, priority support-call routing, access to the top technicians at Lenovo - and in some cases, at IBM, for all we know.

The ThinkServer RD210 and RD220 were generally available on June 30, apparently, with entry prices at $1,699 and $2,199, respectively. The TD200 and TD200x tower machines will be available sometime in July, with the TD200 being available through Lenovo's sales channel on a special-bid basis and the higher-end TD200x being available worldwide directly from Lenovo or indirectly through its channel partners. The entry price for the TD200x is $2,699.

Ever since IBM announced the Lenovo technology partnership in January 2008, tongues have been wagging that IBM would exit the x64 server business, perhaps excepting its high-end SMP boxes, its BladeCenter blade servers, and its hybrid iDataPlex bladish racks (or rackish blades).

The fact is that IBM has not manufactured its rack and tower servers for years, and it is quite possible that all IBM has done with the Lenovo deal is shift some of the manufacturing and design burden to Lenovo, which has server aspirations and which, thanks to its ties with the Chinese government, can make it tough for IBM to sell gear to SMBs in that fast-growing economy.

That said, it would not be surprising to find out that in current or future generations of System x machines, Lenovo did most of the design work and handled the manufacturing - possibly subcontracting most of it, with some final assembly in North Carolina to legitimize "Buy American" flag-waving.

So far, IBM and Lenovo don't want to talk about it, and they don't want customers or resellers making odious comparisons between the System x and ThinkServer lines. ®

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