Hardware Today: Apple Server Snapshot

For Apple, 2006 marked a significant shift in the server market. In August, it announced the imminent arrival of its first Intel-based servers (now shipping) and combined its four categories of Xserve servers into one base configuration with almost unlimited flavors.

Apple simplified its server line and made less equal more.

"When you add up all the possible options, it comes to over a million different versions potentially," says Alex Grossman, senior director of server and storage hardware at Apple Computer. "This is by far our most configurable server offering ever."

Gone are the old single-processor, dual-, cluster-node and ultimate models. Apple has replaced them with what it is calling an all-quad line up, which in reality means dual-processor and dual-core. While the base price of a single processor Xserve was $3,000 before, the same amount now buys four cores.

Customers pick and choose the power characteristics of the processor (e.g., the amount of memory and type of drive) to build the kind of machine they want, rather than being stuck with, for example, the old cluster node model that Apple formerly offered as a dual-processor 2.3 GHz 64-bit PowerPC G5. This 1U box had 512 RAM, 80 GB SATA drives and 10 MAC OS X licenses. In practice, customers found these specs restrictive. Some wanted more power, greater memory or other highly specific requirements. As a result, Apple now lets them dictate what they want for each node in a cluster.

What about the single processor version? Is its retirement from the roster a temporary affair?

"The single processor model is not coming back," says Grossman. "It just doesn't have the performance characteristics that people are looking for these days."

Intel Inside

During the course of 2006, Apple gradually rolled out Intel chips across its product line. The last one to receive the makeover was the Xserve. Although the boxes were announced in August, they first started going out the door a month or so ago.

"We are shipping servers that are five times faster than those we sold a couple of months ago," says Grossman.

Recent Server Snapshots

He reached this number by comparing a dual-processor 2.3 GHz PowerPC G5 processor with an Intel Xeon dual-processor dual-core 3.0 Ghz chip. Most SPECint rate tests by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC), he says, showed a 5X gain in the new server, although he admits a couple of metrics pegged it at 3.6X.

Apple gives its customers a choice of 2.0 GHz, 2.66 GHz or 3.0 GHz dual-core Xeon. The new 1U Xserve supports up to 32GB of 667 MHz DDR2 ECC FB-DIMM and fully-buffered DIMMs.

"The timing of the move to Intel on the server side was just right," says Grossman. "We have experienced brisk ordering."

Something Old, Something New

Those with environments built around the old Xserve were told in August that the box would be available for purchase until the first Xeon-based models shipped. The company received plenty of orders and ran out before the first Intel models made their way into UPS trucks.

Anyone fearing the worst from such a significant shift in direction, however, shouldn't be overly concerned. Apple was smart enough to make the two models integrate well. Mac OS version 10.4 (known as Tiger) functions on both platforms. All of its management tools do the same, although the newer machines offer extended remote lights out management capabilities.

"It's easy to mix and match the old Xserves with the new," says Grossman.

While the front end looks very much the same, the designers pretty much ripped everything else out. It now includes independent 1.33 GHz front-side buses with 4MB of shared L2 cache. According to Grossman, the latest Xserve delivers up to four times the I/O bandwidth and up to three times the memory bandwidth.

Further features have been added, such as quick deployment rails for easier rack mounting, a preinstalled unlimited client edition of MAC OS 10.4 Tiger, more power and cooling sensors (more than 100 sensors, up from 38 in the old Xserve), and an internal graphics card that can drive up to a 23-inch display. An optional ATI Radeon X1300 256MB PCI Express graphics card is available for professional graphics and video applications.

Storage Shift

On the surface, Apple has changed nothing on its storage front. Its Xserve RAID boxes are the same as those offered at the beginning of the year, but the storage capabilities inside Xserve have been upgraded.

"We've doubled the storage bandwidth of the Xserve G5," says Grossman.

The Xserve G5 offered three ATA hard drives, with each being a maximum of 500 GB. Previously, Apple's storage options were limited. The Xeon-based models, on the other hand, have entry-level 80 GB SATA drives, ranging up to 750 GB. Faster (15000 rpm) SAS drives can also be selected. They range from 73 GB to 300 GB.

Users can chose a combination of SAS and SATA drives in the one box. This moves the Xserve capacity from 1.5 TB to 2.25 TB.

"As we own the OS, the drivers and the hardware, we have been able to optimize storage performance," says Grossman. "Two 8-lane PCI Express expansion slots provide up to 2GB/s of throughput."

Software Side of Apple

Although the new Xserve uses the same Tiger operating system, it has been improved to add more 64-bit features — technically, it is now known as Mac OS version 10.47 (aka Tiger). The next version, 10.5 (aka Leopard), is due out in the spring. It will include calendaring software called iCal, more robust search capabilities, and Wiki server features.

For $2,999, a base configuration Xserve includes two 2.0 GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon processors with 1GB RAM, a single 80GB 3Gb/s SATA hard drive, dual Gigabit Ethernet on-board, internal graphics, three FireWire 800 and two USB 2.0 ports, and an unlimited client license of Mac OS X Server version 10.4 Tiger.

But that isn't the model customers are ordering, says Grossman. The initial burst of orders tended to focus on the high-end — a 3 GHz dual-core processor, and as much as 32 GB RAM.

"People are testing the different models, particularly the higher end version," says Grossman. "Ultimately, however, we expect the 2.66 GHz to be the best seller as it probably offers the best price performance."

Apple Servers, At a Glance

Product Name Base Configuration Base Pricing
Xserve Two 2.0 GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon processors with 1GB RAM, a single 80GB 3Gb/s SATA Apple Drive Module, dual Gigabit Ethernet on-board, internal graphics, three FireWire 800 and two USB 2.0 ports, unlimited client license of Mac OS X Server version 10.4 Tiger. Build-to-order options: dual 2.66 or 3.0 GHz dual-core Xeon processors; up to 32GB RAM; 80GB and 750GB 7200 rpm 3Gb/s SATA or 73GB and 300GB 15,000 rpm SAS Apple Drive Modules; ATI Radeon X1300 graphics card with 256MB SDRAM; and 650W redundant power supply. $2,999
Xserve RAID Low-cost, high-performance platform-independent RAID. 7200 RPM Ultra ATA drives, dual controller, 400 MBps Fibre Channel in a 3U form factor. Up to 7 TB RAID options available $5,999

This article was originally published on Dec 5, 2006
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