Apple impresses with new Xserve hardware

Xserve with G5 CPUs, 3.5TB RAID gives you more for less

Perhaps my favorite manipulated image of the past year was the alleged image of a G5-powered Apple Xserve with a case designed by Sub-Zero Freezer. It pretty much summed up the biggest challenge of cramming the latest generation of the PowerPC family into a 1U server box: cooling.

Fortunately, Apple’s engineers made sure the hoax remained nothing more than a good snicker. The newest iteration of Xserve looks a lot like its predecessors; more importantly, it feels like them. But for both the Xserve RAID and Xserve G5, it’s the improvements under the hood that stand out.

Hardware makeover

The Xserve RAID’s 14 drive bays can now accommodate 3.5TB -- 1TB more than the original model. The array has Ultra ATA drives that can be used to upgrade the capacity of previous Xserve RAID and Xserve G4 models. The Xserve G5 has SATA (Serial ATA) drives. As with Ultra ATA, SATA drive modules are available in 80GB or 250GB varieties.

Shoehorning a pair of G5 CPUs into the Xserve’s 1U case required sacrificing a drive bay; the available front-panel space became a pair of cooling system intakes. Apple also added a second built-in 10/100/1000 Ethernet interface to the rear of the box.

Apple’s server hardware has changes, too. The Xserve now supports as much as 8GB of ECC (error-correcting code) memory and is more thoroughly instrumented than the first models -- of the 38 onboard sensors, 10 are dedicated to monitoring component temperatures. IBM’s use of 90-nanometer technology in fabricating the Xserve G5’s CPUs helps handle the cooling issue.

The Xserve still lags on some key feature sets such as hardware RAID and lights-out management, which most customers now expect in a best-of-breed x86 server.

However, these deficiencies won’t affect every deployment. Apple intends to address hardware RAID with an optional card to be made available this fall; until then, software RAID can be enabled through the Mac OS X Disk Utility.

Out-of-band or lights-out management is trickier: With other vendors, it’s often a “golden screwdriver” option that is unlocked when an appropriate fee has been paid. I know of many IT shops that don’t bother to enable out-of-band management, so the fact that it is missing in Xserve may not be a big deal for most organizations.

Nevertheless, there are things I can do with Apple’s tightly integrated hardware and OS that I can’t do with other platforms, such as use an external FireWire boot device if a system refuses to boot on its own.

If I pit the built-in manageability of Xserve running OS X against a Hewlett-Packard ProLiant DL360 G3 running Microsoft Windows Server 2003 -- a situation I face every day in the InfoWorld Test Center’s San Francisco lab -- there’d be no contest. Apple’s Rendezvous technology makes discovery and management of Xserves on a network much simpler than anything one can accomplish with HP’s ancient Insight Manager 7, relying as it does on an unholy union of NetBIOS and SNMP.

Much of the Xserve G5’s manageability is a function of the OS. When I installed the new Xserve, adding it to my existing Mac management infrastructure was as simple as logging in. The Xserve G5’s instrumentation signals the Server Admin management app in XML format, and new hardware is accurately identified and monitored to the fullest extent. This all takes place securely when Server Admin logs in over SSH (Secure Shell).

Awaiting revolution

Although one can argue the merits of one benchmark over another, I’m satisfied that Xserve’s performance is good enough for its target markets -- creative, education, and the standards-obsessed. The Xserve architecture is more about throughput than number crunching; customers will have to decide which they consider more important.

When it comes to scalability, Apple’s offerings speak to the G5 server’s strengths. The combination of the Cluster Node configuration and Xgrid clustering software (which is still a “preview” grade technology) represents a revolution in how IT looks at computers and builds systems.

The value of Xserve may depend on one’s perspective, but the value of Xserve RAID when compared with similar 3U arrays is obvious to even the most stubborn big-iron loyalist. That gap is narrowing, as vendors such as HP and IBM scramble to introduce similar hardware into their product lines.

Xserve will be an even better platform in the months ahead. As I mentioned, hardware-based RAID is on the way, and I expect that the forthcoming Tiger release of Mac OS X -- 10.4 for the numerically inclined -- will enhance the Xserve’s built-in management tools. If nothing else, I’d like to have a Web interface to the management tools and the ability to access Disk Utility from the Server Admin application.

Finally, Apple’s Xsan storage networking app, also due this fall, might actually bring some sanity to SAN implementations. With a $999 price tag and purported 100 percent interoperability with ADIC’s StorNext file system, Xsan may be the budget balancer that SAN technology needs to take off in smaller enterprises.

Apple’s Xserve product line performs well and compares favorably on price. Feature for feature, it holds its own against anything I’ve seen in a Xeon- or Opteron-based system, and forthcoming additions will only sweeten the pot.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Serviceability (10.0%)
Availability (20.0%)
Performance (20.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (25.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Xserve G5 9.0 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 10.0 8.9
Xserve RAID 9.0 9.0 8.0 10.0 9.0 9.0 8.9