Apple Xserve Is A Tasty Server update from March 2003

Nework Computing takes a look at Apple Computer's Xserve and found it easy to manage, configure and install.

March 22, 2003

5 Min Read
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I approached Apple's Xserve with some trepidation. I hadn't touched a Macintosh in years, and the idea of an Apple server was as foreign to me as sushi once was. However, after testing the Xserve, I found that my experience with the product was a lot like my experience with raw fish--I liked it. The Xserve is a worthy little machine that's easy to manage, configure and install.

You should consider the Xserve if your company supports a small complement of Macintoshes, or if you're a small office that needs a centralized file server and/or departmental server. Compatibility-wise, the Xserve is comparable to Intel and Sun boxes -- except it's easier to use. The simple procedure for applying patches and updates to the Apple's OSX 10.2 is refreshing.

However, I wasn't quite so fond of all the product's aspects. (All you rabid Apple fans who may be tempted to deluge my inbox with hate mail, note that I am a longtime Intel user who is considering the Xserve for enterprise use.) Unfortunately, the Xserve requires a Macintosh machine for remote management in a graphical environment. You can get in via the console port or telnet/SSH into the machine, but that doesn't connect you with the ease-of-use server features that are the Xserve's main benefit. I also had trouble hooking up the Xserve to our older Cybex KVM (keyboard-video-mouse) equipment. Xserve does not support PS/2 ports, so I had to hook up the keyboard and mouse locally. This was inconvenient but surmountable.

One of the biggest problems I had to overcome using the Xserve -- and the iBook Apple sent me to manage the Xserve--was getting used to the fact that there's no hidden setting or control panel. Everything is up front. I spent a lot of time thrashing around in search of things that were right in front of me. Once I realized I was making tasks harder than they had to be, I found the machine wonderfully simple.

U.S.S. XserveThe Xserve is a sleek 1U silver rackmount unit with a stylish front panel (see photo below). The front panel features four removable, hot-swappable IDE drives and a fixed CD-ROM drive. There's also a trouble indicator, a machine-identification button, a power button, a locking mechanism for the case, and cool blue activity LEDs similar to those you would see on a 1980s car-stereo amplifier. The machine runs on a pair of Motorola PowerPC G4 chips with 2 MB of DDR (double data rate) Level 3 cache, with the chip core running at 1 GHz.

The main system memory is DDR SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM) with a maximum of 2 GB. The Xserve comes with three PCI slots, two of them functioning at 66 MHz with a 64-bit data path and the other operating at 33 MHz with a 32-bit data path. Apple includes an on-board graphics card and the option of adding a 4x AGP (accelerated graphics port) card for those who want to use the machine in a racked workstation configuration. You also can get an optional Ultra3 SCSI card for external storage devices.

Network connections consist of two Gigabit Ethernet copper interfaces on the back of the machine. There's also the option of a Gigabit Fiber interface in an available expansion slot. The Xserve comes with a few features that would be marginally useful in an enterprise data center, such as the three FireWire ports--two on the back of the machine and one on the front. There are also two USB 1.1 ports and one DB-9 serial port for console access.

The Xserve is in a server-in-a-drawer configuration. Loosening the two thumb screws lets you slide the guts of the machine out of the rack where they'll snap into place for servicing. You shouldn't have any problems servicing the Xserve. However, because the Xserve doesn't come with cable management, be sure to unplug it before trying to pull the machine out for service or upgrade. Otherwise, you may strain the cables or pull them forcibly out of the back of the machine.

Transaction TestsI ran some basic Web tests on the Xserve using our Spirent Communications' WebAvalanche device. Running in an untuned out-of-the-box state, it posted transactions per second only in the low 400s--I found this a little disappointing, but I think an experienced Mac user could tweak a lot more out of the system. I also set up the machine as a file server for my Microsoft Windows workstation and found that it was at least as fast as our Quantum Snap Server 4100 NAS (network-attached storage) device, which is good news. Apple still has some features to work into the Xserve, but it's a solid offering priced in the same ballpark as similarly configured Intel 1U offerings.

Since I tested the Xserve, Apple has released an upgrade that includes 1.33-GHz PowerPC G4 processors, up to 2 GB of 333-MHz DDR memory and up to 720 GB of hot-pluggable storage, depending on the configuration. To address handling large files and bandwidth-hogging applications, Apple has added a 167-MHz system bus and up to 2 GB of PC2700 DDR SDRAM. The company has also added two 64-bit, 66-MHz PCI slots to provide up to 533 Mbps of throughput and to allow for expansion to external SCSI and Fibre Channel devices, making it easy to take advantage of Apple's Xserve RAID system for virtually unlimited storage. Connectivity is provided by dual independent Gigabit Ethernet ports and FireWire 800 interfaces.

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