Server blades have been around for many years and are available from all major computer companies. Over the years, they have improved considerably in terms of power and flexibility, and one company that has been at the leading edge of blade innovation is Supermicro.
With its latest blade offerings, collectively named MicroBlade, Supermicro has made giant strides in terms of price and performance when it comes to blade technology.
For this test, we were given access to the MBE-314E-420 enclosure/chassis containing a number of blade units, as well as other requisite FRUs (Field Replaceable Units) for deployment in a data center. This particular enclosure is a 3U unit with four redundant, hot-swap 2000W power supplies, allowing for 14 hot-plug server blades.
The FRUs consisted of:
- Supermicro MicroBlade Chassis Management Module
- Supermicro MicroBlade 10GbE Switch Module
- 2x Supermicro Xeon D-1541 storage blades
- 2x Supermicro dual Xeon D-1541 compute blades
The Chassis Management Module (CMM) is a separately installed module, allowing comprehensive management access to the entire chassis and its contents, including the power supplies, switch modules, and blade modules. CMM management screens can be accessed via a Web browser (or a terminal, if desired) and, from there, all other units can be managed via the same browser or virtual KVMs, allowing for console access to the blades (and nodes), including powering up and down capabilities.
The switch FRU used in the chassis was a hot-plug 10GbE with 56 10Gbps internal ports used for the blades and four external 40Gbps QSFP ports for outside connection. The chassis supports two of these switch modules for redundancy.
The compute blades refer to the units that are normally two servers on one blade, with each one referred to as a node. Each node gets its own processor, memory and storage, and can be operated independently of the other. Our test compute blade nodes came with an Intel (News - Alert) Xeon D-1541, 64GB of DDR4 SDRAM and a 480GB SSD SATA III storage.
A storage blade is a single server that can have up to four storage drives, allowing for copious amounts of storage or higher level RAID configurations. Our test storage blades came with an Intel Xeon D-1541, 64GB of DDR4 SDRAM and four 480GB SSD SATA III storage.
We found the documentation and other manuals comprehensive and up-to-date but, perhaps, not very necessary. We were able to navigate our way around the system without much help from the documentation.
One of the areas we feel Supermicro can use improvement is accessibility of documentation and manuals. For example when we visited the MicroBlade enclosures page (https://www.supermicro.com/products/MicroBlade/enclosure/), we didn’t see any links to the chassis’ manuals. The manuals are, in fact, on the site and can be accessed from the support menu, just not from the enclosures page. A bit of site rework should greatly facilitate access to relevant documentation and manuals.
We started by browsing to the CMM, selecting the ‘Blade Status’ menu. That gave us a list of the installed blades in the chassis, allowing us to connect to each one via a virtual KVM. We installed a copy of Windows Server 2016 Datacenter Technical Preview 5 on one of the storage blades and a copy of Windows Server 2012 R2 Datacenter on a compute node. This is accomplished by mounting the appropriate ISO file as a drive from the KVM application. The installations went quickly and smoothly. The only snag we encountered was missing network adapters in both cases. Thankfully, that issue was quickly resolved when we downloaded the drivers package from the Supermicro site and installed the proper network driver for each server.
For performance testing, we used the latest PassMark PerformanceTest (version 9). We specifically targeted the processor, memory read/write, and storage I/O for these tests and, in all cases, received respectable to outstanding scores. For example, the disk I/O score for the storage blade came in at the top 99% percentile. The CPU and memory also shined in the tests. We omitted graphics testing, as this would not be applicable to servers.
For network throughput benchmarking, we decided to go with the open source product, iPerf. We used our two blades as client and server, respectively, and bounced heavy network traffic between them using iPerf, while collecting data. We also took a snapshot of the network performance from Windows task manager during the tests. As evident from the graph, the network performed admirably under heavy and sustained load reaching peaks close to the 10Gbps maximum capacity of the switch and the blades' interfaces.
During our tests, we were able to access the switch module from the CMM interface and observe that traffic was, indeed, being logged on the connected ports. We also checked the status of the four power supplies, together with relevant data for each power supply, such as power usage, voltage and current levels and temperatures, all from the same CMM interface.
Finally we verified power level and energy usage on each of the power supplies as seen from the PDU. All values were within the nominal and expected ranges.
Ease of use
Installing the 3U chassis is as easy an installing any device in a rack. The FRUs, be they power supply units or switches or blades, simply slide in and out of the system and click in when in place. The power supplies with an efficiency of 96% are compatible with 100-240VAC providing a maximum output of 2000W each. The Chassis management Module (CMM) makes administering the enclosure and its content a breeze from a Web browser.
The MicroBlade quality is comparable to the other Supermicro products, which are excellent and on par with similar products on the market. The FRUs also enjoy the same high quality. One of the greatest features of this entire system is the ability to have redundancy for all units. If a unit fails, the system will continue to function normally. The failed FRU can be removed and replaced by a new FRU while the system is running, no outages.
We have to admit we didn’t use any form of support during the testing of the MicroBlade. Our contact person at Supermicro gave us an initial introduction of the system and then we took over. The system is well made, the menus are well defined and the configuration screens are user friendly. Anyone with a modicum of server installation experience should be able to get the system up and running in a short order. In fact, we didn’t even consult the manuals much during our setup. Again, the CMM is key to getting everything setup.
Room for Improvement
A slight annoyance was having to find and install the network drivers for the blades while, in most cases, Windows (especially Windows Server 2016) would be expected to have these. This is something hardware manufacturers need to work out with Microsoft’s (News - Alert) Windows Hardware Quality Labs to be included in their drivers’ list. The network drivers are one of the most essential drivers to have. Once the network is established, other drivers can be downloaded and installed.
Value and Bottom Line
The race between hardware and software capabilities has been around for decades and still holds true. Supermicro’s MicroBlade line of products packs a great deal of performance into the 3U/6U enclosures with competitive pricing. Add to that the ease of management, redundancy, and low power footprint, and MicroBlade becomes a powerful and flexible system for high-demand enterprise data centers, cloud service providers, and hosting services.
Star Rating- Out of Five
Ease of Install: 5
Ease of Use: 5
Edited by Alicia Young