My New Web Server

Dell Poweredge 2850New to me anyway. My previous server was made by VA Linux (a company that is no longer in business). It is a great server but it has been in service many years. The poor old server desperately needed software upgrades for: FreeBSD, Apache, MySQL and PHP. Rather than trying to do the upgrades on the server while it was in service I decided to purchase a new server and do a fresh install of everything and then move my websites over to it.

After a little research I decided on the Dell PowerEdge 2850. The more I learned about this server the happier I became on my decision to start fresh rather than upgrade. Some of the specs of my new box: Dual 3.6Ghz Zenon processors, 4GB memory, Redundant 750w power supplies, 6 73GB 10,000RPM hot-swap SCSI hard drives, Hardware RAID, CD and Floppy. You can look at a PDF of the official Dell Specs here.

Dual 3.6Ghz Zenon processors is a lot of power. Way more than my web server should ever need. I wish my desktop had that much power. My server came with 4 1GB memory modules installed in the 6 available memory slots.

The PowerEdge 2850 supports “memory mirroring” and “spare bank”. Web servers like lots of memory so I have all 4 gigs configured for the server. I went with the 32-bit version of the FreeBSD operating system which can only recognize a max of 4GB of memory. If I come across a deal  on 2 more sticks of memory I will  set them up as a “spare bank”. With a “spare bank” should any memory fail the spare bank will jump in and replace the bank with the failing memory.

With 6 73GB hard disks and RAID installed I had a lot of options on how to set up the disks. My old server only had 36GB of space. I went with a single RAID-5 array. I configured 5 of the 6 disks into the RAID-5 array and kept the 6th disk as a “hot-spare”. With a RAID-5 array data is written to all 5 disks. Data is written to the disks in such a way that if one disk fails it’s contents can be calculated from the remaining disks. Having a “hot-spare” disk means that if one disk fails its data is rebuilt on the spare disk and the system is restored to normal. Once the system is rebuilt a second disk can fail and still be safe from data loss. The  only danger is if a second disk fails before the first failed disk is rebuilt, a process that can take several hours. The RAID system has many options including how much processing power is devoted to rebuilding a failed disk. I left it at the default 30%. Setting the RAID up was not much more difficult than hitting “ctrl-m” during boot and selecting what you want from the menus. FreeBSD has a utility called Megarc that allows you to monitor your RAID systems health remotely. Just install the port and type “megarc -dispCfg -a0” on the command line.

The PowerEdge 2850 comes with not one but two 700 watt power supplies. Over the years I’ve dealt with many computer failures. The most common component to fail is hard drives. The number two most common component to fail is the Power Supply. There are so many types of power supplies and many of them are proprietary. Getting a replacement can be difficult. Having two means that your server will not go down when one fails.

One more note on component failures. The Dell PowerEdge 2850 has built in redundancy for all the components than commonly fail. Let me say that the hardware used to build servers is of a much higher quality than what you find in the typical desktop that failures are quite rare. I have one server that has been in use over 10 years without failure. In fact at one point it had an uptime of over 6 years. The only reason it was rebooted was because of a power failure. If you live in California you may remember the Rolling Blackouts.

This server has more LEDs than a Christmas tree to let you know its health. There is even a small LCD screen on the front that lists any problems with the server. The screen changes from blue to amber when an error code is displayed.

Even with 6 removable hard drive bays on the front of this 2U box Dell found room to include both floppy and CD drives. They are useful when setting the server up but for most people will be forgotten about after that. I used the floppy drive to update the bios and the CD drive to boot the FreeBSD operating system install. Not much need for them after that. I could have made due with a bootable USB stick but having the drives meant less fiddling.

This computer is heavy duty. I would guess that it weighs almost 60 pounds. The Dell service manual has an entire section devoted to how to pick it up properly. Bend your knees not your back. If you enjoy engineering you will want to disassemble the parts just to see how well thought out the design is.

By now most of you are wondering what this thing costs. I looked up the Dell Service number and found out that this server cost about $8000.00 new in Dec. 2005. If you were to configure a similar new server today it would cost around $3000.00. I found mine on Ebay for $250.00. It was local so I didn’t pay shipping. It was also sold by a computer recycling company that gave me a 30-day warranty with it. Great deal in my book.

I love this machine. Throw in a nice video card (yes there is a riser card with a slot for one) and you would have a kick-ass desktop for under $500.00.

Here is some great information about the PowerEdge 2850 from Dell:

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4 Responses to My New Web Server

  1. David says:

    What video card did you find that would work in your PowerEdge 2850?

  2. I recently acquired one of these servers. Do you know if I can populate all six memory slots with 4GB modules if I want to use single-rank modules and the “spare bank” feature? All I can find in the documentation is this:

    Spare Bank Support

    If six memory modules of the same size are installed, the memory modules in bank 3 (DIMM3_A and DIMM3_B) can function as a spare bank. The following restrictions apply when configuring memory for spare bank support:

    All six memory modules must be single-rank modules.

    All six memory modules must have the same capacity.

    I don’t want to buy 6 4GB modules if I can only use 4.

    • Craig Harris says:

      The rules are that memory must be installed in matched pairs.

      Max memory is 16GBs. I believe this is a bios limitation.

      I’ve never tried but I see no reason you couldn’t populate all banks with 4GB modules as long as two are set up as a “spare bank”.

      I run 32-bit OS’s on my servers which can only use 4GBs of memory. I’ve got 6GBs installed with the extra 2 being set as a spare bank. The bios and OS both show only 4GB installed. The other 2 just sitting there waiting to be needed.

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