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Lenovo ThinkServer RD120 – A Branch Contender

Companies with multiple locations need a straightforward server in their remote offices. Is Lenovo’s ThinkServer RD120 the right tool for the job?

On by Matthew Sarrel , posted by 0

Many businesses have multiple locations with server requirements. Examples include retail and restaurant chains, any large enterprise with smaller local offices, and local service centres.

These companies all need to reduce deployment costs and cut the management overhead, while increasing availability and data security. They need a server in a box that can be shipped to the branch and simply switched on.

The mother ship can rarely experience good results from simply shipping a new server to a branch office, but deployments that require on-site personnel can be costly due to travel. In these cases, the Holy Grail is a server that can be centrally configured and easily installed once it has arrived at the branch office.

Lenovo’s ThinkServer RD120 hardware is thoughtfully designed with this in mind. The 2U server is optimised for high performance and low space and electricity use, accommodating two Intel Xeon 5000 processors, up to 48GB of RAM in 12 slots, and four PCI-E expansion slots. We tested a ThinkServer with the following configuration: dual Intel Xeon E5430 2.66MHz CPU, 4GB memory, two 250 GB SATA hard drives configured for RAID 0 (model 644713u, at a cost of $2,147 or £1,515). We ran 64-bit Microsoft Windows Server 2008, although the server is also compatible with 32- and 64 bit versions of Windows Server 2003, Windows Small Business Server, VMware, Citrix Systems’ Xen Hypervisor, Novell SUSE, and Red Hat Linux.

Software and Services Are Key

Lenovo ThinkServer EasyStartup software provides a user-friendly interface to install and configure the new server and OS. While the software is geared towards non-technical users, a central IT department could buy 20 identical servers for branch offices, configure one, save a response file containing configuration information onto a memory key, and then ship the servers, the ThinkServer EasyStartup software on CD and the memory key to a branch office. At the branch office, local tech support or even a power user could then physically install the server, run ThinkServer EasyStartup and load the response file, and then sit back and watch the server configure itself. The only drawback to this process is that the response file is almost 4GB in size, which seems strangely large to me as it is only configuration information.

ThinkServer EasyUpdate can be a boon to server administrators who haven’t yet automated the patching process. Essentially, the software provides a single Web interface to prioritise, select, download, and install any patch (OS, drivers, apps) to the server. One very cool thing is that you can create and deploy custom install packages. This means that headquarters could push not only basic patches for OS and applications out to branch offices, but also installation packages and patches of custom applications.

ThinkServer EasyManage is the heart of Lenovo’s management offering. The software allows admins to monitor all servers and distribute alert notifications via SMS and e-mail, for example. Hardware agents get pushed to each server under management, and integration with EasyUpdate provides almost transparent hardware and firmware updates.

At the core is the venerable LANDesk (formerly of Intel, now of Avocent) management platform. LANDesk can manage entire networks of servers and workstations at local and remote sites, and includes features such as inventory, remote control and asset monitoring.

Support is another strong suit for Lenovo. The RD120 comes with a standard one-year on-site warranty and a 90-day trial of its TPS (ThinkPlus Priority Support). The TPS trial includes 24/7 telephone support for the OS and apps installed on the server, an upgrade path to four-hour responses to hardware problems and an option to continue after the trial has ended. Data protection is also available as an optional online backup service, Lenovo Online Backup.

Our RD120 came with a license for online data protection. In three clicks, I made an initial backup and scheduled nightly online backups. Double-clicking the system tray icon for Lenovo Online Backup opens the user interface, where I could easily select individual files to be restored.

The Nitty Gritty

Before rack mounting the server, I took a few minutes to check out the hardware itself and was pleased to find that it is very well designed. Perhaps my favorite hardware feature is the operator information panel, which has five LEDs and a power switch on the front face, plus pops out of the server to display the 16 LEDS of Light Path Diagnostics. I could easily tell whether anything had gone wrong, ranging from a hard drive error to a failed fan or RAID controller.

The inside of the unit is well designed to facilitate service while optimising air flow for cooling. For example, the 12 DIMM sockets are covered with a hard plastic that improves cooling yet can easily be removed for upgrades.

There’s plenty of room for storage, with six drive bays that can accommodate 3.5 inch SATA or SAS hard drives in hot-swap brackets. Options for storage abound, and include a conversion kit to hold eight 2.5-inch hard drives or four 3.5-inch drives with an internal tap drive, or you can add an external enclosure. The standard ServeRAID 8K-I controller comes with only 32MB of cache; upgrading the controller adds more cache and a battery backup, plus the ability to run nested RAID such as 10, 50, or 60.

I ran into a little snag in my ThinkServer EasyManage testing. I wanted to install the full console of the management platform, but was unable to on the 64-bit Windows Server 2008 that was pre-installed on the unit. I worked around this by installing it on a separate 32-bit Windows Server 2003 EE machine with .NET Framework 2.3 and Microsoft Web Services Enhancements 2.0 SP3.

Once installed, ThinkServer EasyManage began to shine. Of course, it is essentially the same LANDesk Management Suite 8 that everyone else runs, with the addition of Lenovo-specific data gathering and application triggering. I easily pushed management agents out to my test ThinkServer and ThinkPad X200 and immediately saw value. I was able to gather info for hardware and software inventory, provide tech support via remote control, and access ThinkVantage Technologies (all the Lenovo client management goodies) directly from a central management console, which makes for a strong offering.

For example, I established a policy to verify that ThinkVantage Client Security was running on my laptop to enforce biometric authentication and data encryption.

The combination of reasonably priced and well-designed hardware coupled with a complete management platform could make life a lot easier for centralised support of branch office environments. How nimble would your business be if you could provide almost a complete (LAN not included) compute environment (server and workstations or laptops) for a branch office that could be quickly and easily deployed and managed?

Conclusion


Lenovo’s ThinkServer RD120 is a good fit for businesses—including retail chains, restaurants and larger enterprises—that have offices in multiple and dispersed locations. The Lenovo ThinkServer combines well-designed hardware built to save on space and power costs with a complete and solid management platform. The software makes it easy to configure the server centrally and install it in the remote office.

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