Apple impresses with new Xserve hardware

Apple impresses with new Xserve hardware

Perhaps my favourite manipulated image of the past year was the alleged image of a G5-powered Apple’s 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.

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.

Apple’s server hardware has changes, too. The Xserve now supports as much as 8GB of error- correcting code (ECC) 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-nanometre 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 later this year; until then, software RAID can be enabled through the Mac OS X Disk Utility.

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.

No contest

If I pitted the built-in manageability of Xserve running OS X against a Hewlett-Packard ProLiant DL360 G3 running Microsoft Windows Server 2003 there would 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 Secure Shell (SSH).

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 later this year, might actually bring some sanity to SAN implementations. Apple’s Xserve product line performs well and compares favourably 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.

Local information

The Apple Xserve G5 starts at RRP $4799. Apple sells directly to most Apple authorised resellers, and KH Distribution handles regional/rural and other outlets.

Apple Must Convince IT of Case for Xserve G5

Apple’s Xserve G5 is a powerful machine — just not in ways that are easy to get across to the IT market.

It is not a general-purpose computing barn burner. In business-style integer and floating-point tests, a 2GHz Xserve G5 comes in at about half the calculating power of a 2.2GHz Opteron running in pure 64-bit mode.

The G5’s memory performance is excellent, but it degrades in a linear fashion under load, whereas Opteron’s memory performance degrades more slowly. Opteron is cheaper, faster in common computation, and more consistent in terms of how fast it accesses memory.

In light of these facts, it’s hard to make a traditional IT case for Xserve G5. IT departments generally base their PC server purchasing decisions on criteria that reflect the strengths of the x86 architecture: the highest clock speed, the largest CPU cache, and the maximum amount of memory they can afford. With Xeon and Opteron, a system is the same thing as a computer. If that’s your viewpoint, nothing about Xserve G5 quickens your heartbeat.

The excitement Xserve G5 is generating within IT — and there is likely more adoption than you think — comes from integrating high-performance computing (HPC) principles into next-generation business applications. HPC is a flexible model that considers servers to be components of a logical system rather than systems unto themselves. Truly useful dynamic applications need this freedom to reconfigure their environment — the logical system — while they’re running.

What’s next? Apple just announced a new Power Mac G5 desktop with dual 2.5GHz CPUs, a bus bandwidth of 1.25GHz (up from 1GHz), and liquid cooling. That’s a dramatic boost to computing speed, throughput, and constant load capacity, and the next Xserve G5 will undoubtedly share or exceed those specs.

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