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Apple Revs Xserve and Introduces Xserve RAID

Leaving the iBook as the only part of Apple’s product line that hasn’t recently received a significant update (hint, hint), Apple today announced new models of their industrial strength Xserve 1U rack-mount servers (see "Apple Introduces Xserve Rack-Mount Server" in TidBITS-631). Simultaneously, Apple introduced the Xserve RAID, a 3U rack-mount 2Gb Fibre Channel box that can hold up to 14 Apple Drive Modules for a total of 2.52 terabytes (TB) of storage. Apple had originally promised the Xserve RAID would be available by the end of 2002, but the company backtracked toward the end of the year. Both the new Xserve models and the Xserve RAID will be available in March.


Competing as they do in the big business world of data centers, the Xserve and Xserve RAID will live and die by their specs, and Apple has provided what look like impressive numbers.

New Xserves — The new models feature either one or two 1.33 GHz PowerPC G4 processors with 256K of on-chip Level 2 cache running at the full 1.33 GHz speed and 2 MB of Level 3 cache, all using a 167 MHz system bus. They come with either 256 MB or 512 MB of PC2700 DDR RAM running at 333 MHz (upgradable to 2 GB via four DIMM slots), and one 60 GB ATA/133 drive module (with a maximum of 720 GB possible by filling the four hot-swappable drive bays with 180 GB drive modules). Also new are a pair of FireWire 800 ports on the back panel that join the standard two USB ports and a DB-9 serial port; the front panel offers a single FireWire 400 port. Dual independent Gigabit Ethernet is still standard, as is a PCI-based ATI video card (an AGP 4x ATI Radeon 8500 can replace the Ethernet card in the combo PCI/AGP slot). You can now choose a Combo drive (CD-RW/DVD-ROM) instead of the standard CD-ROM drive. As before, a copy of Mac OS X Server with unlimited clients runs the Xserve. The single processor model starts at $2,800 and the dual processor model at $3,800, both a drop of $200 from the slower models they replace.


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A few notable things have not changed. The new models do not support either AirPort Extreme or Bluetooth, but neither technology makes much sense for a rack-mounted server. The Xserve still lacks dual power supplies, which some people have longed for, and maxes out at 2 GB of RAM, rather than the 4 GB or 8 GB that some high-end installations need.

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Xserve RAID — Apple’s new Xserve RAID connects to the Xserve via the $500 dual channel 2 GB Apple Fibre Channel PCI Card. Rather than use pricey Fibre Channel drives, the Xserve RAID relies on inexpensive 7200 RPM ATA/100 drive modules that can be hot-swapped into the 3U rack mount enclosure that converts ATA to Fibre Channel. Each 3U enclosure can hold up to 14 Apple Drive Modules (the same hot-swappable modules used in the Xserve itself) for a total of 2.52 TB. For reliability, the Xserve RAID offers optional Cache Backup Battery Modules that Apple claims provide more than 72 hours of backup power to protect data in the RAID controller during a power outage; dual independent RAID controllers, redundant cooling modules; and dual, redundant, hot-swappable power supplies.


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The Xserve RAID may cost less than other high-end hardware RAIDs, but it’s still not exactly cheap: 2.52 TB costs $11,000 (about $4 per GB), though you can buy 1.26 TB for $7,500 and 720 GB for $6,000. In terms of RAID levels, the Xserve RAID supports RAID 0 (striping), RAID 1 (mirroring), RAID 3 (striping with parity), RAID 5 (striping with distributed parity), and RAID 0+1 (striping over mirroring). That’s all in hardware; software RAID in the Xserve adds RAID 10, 30, and 50, which is striping across multiple RAID 1, 3, or 5 sets.

Slow Start, but Great Expectations — The Xserve hasn’t been a barn-burner in terms of sales and didn’t even meet Apple’s projections in the second quarter of 2002, its first quarter of sales, Still, the Gartner Group said Apple shipped 5,700 units in the U.S. in the third quarter of 2002, good for a 1.2 percent market share that was three times better than the previous year’s third quarter. And in the fourth calendar quarter of 2002, Apple said it shipped 6,000 Xserves. Those numbers don’t sound like much, but the market for high-end servers is much smaller than for desktop computers (in a year, Apple alone ships nearly as many Macs in the U.S. as the total U.S. server sales from all companies).

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Nonetheless, the Xserve has received generally glowing reviews from publications that are seldom enthused about anything from Apple. The prices are competitive, the software is a tremendous value (it would cost $1,000 on its own), and there’s no question that Apple has improved the Xserve in welcome ways. Dual power supplies may be unreasonable in a 1U case – there simply isn’t much extra room in there – but it would be good to see Apple raising the upper limits on RAM in a future revision. But you already know if those limitations are a problem for your needs; for most people who need a server, a rack-mounted Xserve is an impressive package, particularly for the price. I hope to be ordering one soon for our next generation of TidBITS server infrastructure.

PayBITS: Did Adam’s Xserve research and reporting help make up

your mind about whether or not the Xserve is your next server?


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