Intel’s 3400 chipset for its socket 1156 platform accepts CPU’s from the cheap Intel Pentium G6950 and Core i3-530 to the higher end Xeon X3430 to X3470 CPUs. Both Clarkdale and Lynnfield based CPU’s offer outstanding power consumption (for early 2010) at relatively low costs. After reviewing the Supermicro X8SIL-F, I purchased a competing (price wise) Intel motherboard to review, the Intel S3420GPLC. As I soon found, Intel also makes a good board, however it lacks some of the Supermicro’s features.
With this review I have followed my trend of trying to balance the use of a decent amount of hardware and software with the amount of time I can realistically spend testing different configurations. I tried to use hardware that is comparable to what a lot of my visitors seem to use in their systems.
Intel’s S3420GPLC motherboard has two onboard Intel network controllers the 82754L and 82758DM. The 82754L is used in many server motherboards from Intel, Supermicro, and Tyan, as well as Intel’s single port Pro 1000 CT network adapter (Intel EXPI9301CTBLK). Bottom line is these controllers are high quality controllers that are well supported by Windows 2008 Server R2, Linux (I tried Ubuntu and SUSE), Microsoft Hyper-V, VMWare ESX(i), and even Windows Home Server. Dual Intel gigabit controllers including one with sideband capabilities for baseboard management are important feature of any server motherboard.
Two PCIe 2.0 x8 slots (one x16 physical and one x8 physical) and one PCIe x4 slot (x8 mechanical) plus a legacy PCI slot provide plenty of expandability. With the larger ATX form factor, there is more room between PCIe slots than the X8SIL-F which allows for more airflow over expansion cards with passive heatsinks. One can easily install a dedicated Areca, LSI, or Adaptec RAID card, a quad port or 10 gigabit NIC, and/ or a fibre channel HBA on the Intel S3420GPLC and have little to worry about when it comes to overheating due to component density (assuming proper airflow from case fans).
Beyond the expansion slots, the Intel S3420GPLC also includes six DDR3 DIMM slots for users of registered ECC DDR3 modules. Like other LGA1156 motherboards that have six DIMM slots, one needs to remember that a limitation of the LGA1156 platform is its native dual channel memory support (e.g. 2x 2 DIMMs) versus the LGA1366’s native triple channel memory controller (3x 2 DIMMs). Unlike desktop environments, memory capacity and bandwidth become greater concerns in sever environments, especially once a user starts loading multiple virtual machines onto a server.
Onboard Video and IPMI 2.0
Server Engine LLC Pilot II Controller. 64MB DDR2 with 8MB dedicated to video. IPMI features include: fan speed control, diagnostic LEDs, Temperature monitoring and recovery, SMASH CLP, email alerts.
Bundled with the Intel S3420GPLC is a nice set of management software.
Microsoft System Center Essentials 2007 90-day evaluation with Intel Management packs is included with the motherboard. Frankly, for many users, MS SCE is going to be overkill as it helps manage things like OS updates/ patches, hardware inventories, and such from one centralized location. In fact, to a certain extent, Windows Home Server actually monitors automatic updates, backups, and security settings of clients. On the other hand, for larger organizations (up to 30 Windows servers in MS SCE 2007 and 50 in MS SCE 2010 with 500 desktops) MS SCE certainly has a value proposition. I would highly recommend downloading the Microsoft System Center Essentials 2010 from Microsoft instead of using the included 2007 version at this point since the newer version helps better manage Hyper-V virtual machines among other enhancements.
The Intel System Management Software / Active System Console software has some basic server health and power viewing capabilities as well as the ability to send alerts via e-mail if monitoring thresholds are reached/ exceeded. Every good server platform will have something similar, and it is a major difference between server grade hardware and consumer grade hardware.
Another nice included tool is the Intel Deployment Assistant (IDA). The IDA is a bootable CD ROM that only works with Intel Server boards (I tried to use on others only to receive an error). It helps simplify the initial server configuration by providing a central firmware download application, setup application, RAID configuration wizard, as well as unattended OS installation. By unattended OS installation the utility basically has a wizard that has one answer questions that aid the wizard in OS installation without one needing to sit around clicking “next”. It is surely a useful feature.
Overall, this was a decent management software package for the Intel S3420GPLC.
Internal USB Port
An important feature for many server users is an integrated internal USB port. This is a feature that I call out every time in home servers because it is great for people running FreeNAS (FreeBSD), Openfiler (Linux), EON ZFS Storage (OpenSolaris), or unRaid from USB flash drives. Having the internal USB port is nice because the USB flash drive is less prone to accidentally becoming dislodged than if it were connected to an external USB port. Admittedly, this is slightly less useful without remote image mounting capabilities at the BMC level because you cannot upgrade/ access the internal drive as easily. Nonetheless, it is a useful feature.
No Remote KVM over IP, management NIC, nor WebGUI
This is a major shortcoming of the Intel S3420GPLC. One could opt for the Intel S3420GPLX and then install the Intel Remote Management Module 3 (RMM3). The Intel RMM3 adds the extra management NIC along with the ability to do remote power cycles and KVM-over-IP through a Web GUI. The major downside to the RMM3 is that the add-on board costs about $65-75 (street). Furthermore, Intel only provides the RMM3 header on the Intel S3420GPLX ($270-280 street) not the S3420GPLC, meaning that one cannot easily add a RMM3 module to the S3420GPLC. One does get the remote IPMI 2.0 monitoring features, but no KVM over IP.
CPU and Memory Compatibility
Not surprisingly, the Intel S3420GPLC managed worked with the i3-530, i5-650, and a Xeon X3460 flawlessly in testing. Like the Supermicro X8ST3-F I found the Intel S3420GPLC to be fairly flexible when it comes to memory compatibility. I was able to use low-cost G.Skill non-ECC DDR3 1600 memory kits in 4x 2GB configurations easily as well as my favorite Intel 3400 chipset Kingston DDR3 1333 ECC unregistered memory. It should be noted that to use all six memory slots on this board, one needs to use registered ECC DIMMs. I did not get an opportunity to test functionality with registered DIMMs.
Overall, the Intel board is a solid piece for someone looking to put together a home or small business server with remote health monitoring capabilities based upon an Intel motherboard. The fact is, Intel has a solid product with a three year warranty and a big name brand behind it. I will say that not having KVM over IP features after having used them for a long time is a bit of a disappointment on the S3420GPLC that can be remedied by purchasing a higher-end S3420GPLX and RMM3 module (with a total cost of about $330 US). For some users, Intel’s management software, warranty, compatibility, and brand will put the Intel S3420GPLC motherboard on the top of their lists.