Hardware Today: Apple Server Snapshot

Monday Dec 6th 2004 by Drew Robb
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Is Apple's Xserve taking a bite out of the Wintel market?

After its initial launch several years ago, sales of Apple's Xserve rack server line struggled. Throughout each quarter of 2003, Xserve sales averaged in the 5,000 to 6,000 unit range. Then, in first-quarter, 2004, sales slumped to a low of 4,412. Apple responded with a timely revamp followed by a drop in price to a little more than $2,000. Result: Sales have more than doubled, according to Gartner's quarterly survey numbers.

"Clearly, the core audience for the Apple Xserve is among existing Mac users," said John Enck, an analyst at Gartner. "It plays well in any environment that has a good deal of heterogeneity in the client and server environment."

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The March 2004 version introduced the Mac OS 10.3 (code named Panther) and a 64-bit IBM G5 processor. This latest iteration has further strengthened that foundation with more RAM and greater storage space. As a result, Xserve is gaining traction in markets looking for high performance and a low footprint.

In the scientific community, for example, Virginia Tech clustered 1,100 Xserve servers to form a supercomputing platform that ranked number 7 in the latest Top500 Supercomputing Sites survey. Another adopter, government contractor Colsa, combined 1,556 Xserve units for hypersonic flight simulation.

"We have seen significant growth in science, education, SMB and the creative arena," said Alex Grossman, director of hardware product marketing at Apple. "Many of these users are looking for high-performance computing."

In the case of Xserve, that performance comes with up to 8 GB of RAM, a 1 GHz front side bus, and a 2 GHz 64-bit processor. While Intel is planning to move Itanium to 90 nanometers some time next year, IBM is already there with the G5, the processor used in XServe.

Xserve's allure is further heightened by a complementary RAID box that adds as much as 5.6 TB in a 3U space, up from 3.5 TB in the March release. That works out to about $2 per GB. Apple also recently added a new hardware RAID card to supplement the RAID software built into Panther to enhance storage performance.

Each Xserve RAID box has three hard drives and can be arranged in RAID 0, 2, 3, 5, 10 as well as more exotic configurations, like RAID 30 and 51. RAID 5 delivers 800 GB of space, and RAID 0 offers 1.2 TB per unit.

"A lot of customers don't need the extra RAID box, as the Xserve alone gives them all the storage they need," said Grossman. "When it comes to tier-two storage, its hard to beat Xserve RAID for cost effectiveness."

The storage box is Fibre Channel based to the host, and much of the traditional Fibre Channel complexity is masked from the user, according to Grossman.

The following chart details Apple's server offerings.

Apple Servers at a Glance

Product Name Options Description Base Configuration Base Pricing
Xserve Single Processor Single processor 64-bit PowerPC G5 1U server 512 MB RAM, 80 GB SATA, Mac OS X (unlimited client edition) $2,999
Dual Processor Dual processor 64-bit PowerPC G5 1U server 1 GB RAM, 80 GB SATA, Mac OS X (unlimited client edition) $3,999
Cluster Node Compute-optimized dual processor 64-bit PowerPC G5 1U server 512 MB RAM, 80 GB SATA, Mac OS X (10 user max edition) $2,999
Ultimate Custom configuration with maximum storage capacity 2 GB RAM (up to 8 GB RAM available), 3x400 GB SATA, Mac OS X (unlimited client edition, Mac OS X server maintenance program) $7,148
Xserve RAID 1 TB, 2.8 TB, and 5.6 TB RAID options available Low-cost, high-performance platform independent RAID 7200 RPM Ultra ATA drives, dual controller, 400 MBps Fibre Channel in a 3U form factor $5,999 to $12,999

>> A Good Fit

Fitting In

Apple is quick to point out the heterogeneous nature of Xserve. It has been designed to work with Windows, Linux, Novell, and Unix. That doesn't mean, though, that anyone is expecting Xserve to push Wintel servers aside — at least any time soon. Few Windows-centric organizations are likely to beat a path to their local Apple server showroom.

"Although the Xserve integrates with Active Directory and with Windows desktops, this integration does require some configuration work — it doesn't just drop into an environment and work seamlessly," said Enck. "Therefore, the more homogeneous the organization is, the less likely they will find Xserve appealing."

Enck believes Xserve is a viable alternative to appliances, particularly NAS and Web appliances. Further, it may also be a good alternative for organizations that have not yet taken the plunge with Linux, and lack the technical know-how to ease the transition to open source.

Apple has gone out of its way to certify Xserve to work with Windows, various flavors of Linux, and other environments — and to ensure it functions well in all platforms. In addition, its licensing scheme beats Microsoft's hands down. Instead of buying server licenses and additional client access licenses (CAL) for every PC and device accessing the server, Apple offers unlimited client access for certain versions of Xserve.

In terms of usability, Grossman claims Xserve is the easiest Unix-based server to get up and running. While it may take a half day to set up Apache on Linux, it can be done on Mac OS with one click. Unix lovers can look under the hood and use the command lines with which they are familiar, while less technically savvy users can take advantage of a simple user interface that cloaks all the complexity.

What's Next?

Mac OS 10.4, codenamed Tiger, is scheduled to be unveiled in the first half of 2005, says Grossman. Another new addition, due imminently, is a clustered file system known as XSAN. This 64-bit SAN software enables multiple high-end video clients to be hooked up with the server and the storage box. It can also act as a common data store when sharing data among many servers.

"The Apple storage solution is very strong in terms of functionality and value," said Enck. "I think the attach rate between Xserve and their storage products will be reasonably high."

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