I just did a Debian install on a Dell PowerEdge T30 for a client. The Dell web site is a bit broken at the moment, it didn’t list the price of that server or give useful specs when I was ordering it. I was under the impression that the server was limited to 8G of RAM, that’s unusually small but it wouldn’t be the first time a vendor crippled a low end model to drive sales of more expensive systems. It turned out that the T30 model I got has 4*DDR4 sockets with only one used for an 8G DIMM. It apparently can handle up to 64G of RAM.
It has space for 4*3.5″ SATA disks but only has 4*SATA connectors on the motherboard. As I never use the DVD in a server this isn’t a problem for me, but if you want 4 disks and a DVD then you need to buy a PCI or PCIe SATA card.
Compared to the PowerEdge T130 I’m using at home the new T30 is slightly shorter and thinner while seeming to have more space inside. This is partly due to better design and partly due to having 2 hard drives in the top near the DVD drive which are a little inconvenient to get to. The T130 I have (which isn’t the latest model) has 4*3.5″ SATA drive bays at the bottom which are very convenient for swapping disks.
It has two PCIe*16 slots (one of which is apparently quad speed), one shorter PCIe slot, and a PCI slot. For a cheap server a PCI slot is a nice feature, it means I can use an old PCI Ethernet card instead of buying a PCIe Ethernet card. The T30 cost $1002 so using an old Ethernet card saved 1% of the overall cost.
The T30 seems designed to be more of a workstation or personal server than a straight server. The previous iterations of the low end tower servers from Dell didn’t have built in sound and had PCIe slots that were adequate for a RAID controller but vastly inadequate for video. This one has built in line in and out for audio and has two DisplayPort connectors on the motherboard (presumably for dual-head support). Apart from the CPU (an E3-1225 which is slower than some systems people are throwing out nowadays) the system would be a decent gaming system.
It has lots of USB ports which is handy for a file server, I can attach lots of backup devices. Also most of the ports support “super speed”, I haven’t yet tested out USB devices that support such speeds but I’m looking forward to it. It’s a pity that there are no USB-C ports.
One deficiency of the T30 is the lack of a VGA port. It has one HDMI and two DisplayPort sockets on the motherboard, this is really great for a system on or under your desk, any monitor you would want on your desk will support at least one of those interfaces. But in a server room you tend to have an old VGA monitor that’s there because no-one wants it on their desk. Not supporting VGA may force people to buy a $200 monitor for their server room. That increases the effective cost of the system by 20%. It has a PC serial port on the motherboard which is a nice server feature, but that doesn’t make up for the lack of VGA.
The BIOS configuration has an option displayed for enabling charging devices from USB sockets when a laptop is in sleep mode. It’s disappointing that they didn’t either make a BIOS build for a non-laptop or have the BIOS detect at run-time that it’s not on laptop hardware and hide that.
The PowerEdge T30 is a nice low-end workstation. If you want a system with ECC RAM because you need it to be reliable and you don’t need the greatest performance then it will do very well. It has Intel video on the motherboard with HDMI and DisplayPort connectors, this won’t be the fastest video but should do for most workstation tasks. It has a PCIe*16 quad speed slot in case you want to install a really fast video card. The CPU is slow by today’s standards, but Dell sells plenty of tower systems that support faster CPUs.
It’s nice that it has a serial port on the motherboard. That could be used for a serial console or could be used to talk to a UPS or other server-room equipment. But that doesn’t make up for the lack of VGA support IMHO.
One could say that a tower system is designed to be a desktop or desk-side system not run in any sort of server room. However it is cheaper than any rack mounted systems from Dell so it will be deployed in lots of small businesses that have one server for everything – I will probably install them in several other small businesses this year. Also tower servers do end up being deployed in server rooms, all it takes is a small business moving to a serviced office that has a proper server room and the old tower servers end up in a rack.
Rack vs Tower
One reason for small businesses to use tower servers when rack servers are more appropriate is the issue of noise. If your “server room” is the room that has your printer and fax then it typically won’t have a door and you just can’t have the noise of a rack mounted server in there. 1RU systems are inherently noisy because the small diameter of the fans means that they have to spin fast. 2RU systems can be made relatively quiet if you don’t have high-end CPUs but no-one seems to be trying to do that.
I think it would be nice if a company like Dell sold low-end servers in a rack mount form-factor (19 inches wide and 2RU high) that were designed to be relatively quiet. Then instead of starting with a tower server and ending up with tower systems in racks a small business could start with a 19 inch wide system on a shelf that gets bolted into a rack if they move into a better office. Any laptop CPU from the last 10 years is capable of running a file server with 8 disks in a ZFS array. Any modern laptop CPU is capable of running a file server with 8 SSDs in a ZFS array. This wouldn’t be difficult to design.