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Apple Converts Xserves from PowerPC to AMD

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When Apple announced in June 2005 it was planning to transition its Macintosh computer line to Intel-based processors, the entire Apple community was aghast: a move away from PowerPC would be a historic turning point for the company and its flagship computers. But a tiny portion of the Macintosh community was aghast for different reasons. They were thinking: “Intel processors? What about AMD?!” Well, today at a press event in Mountain View, they got their answer.


Apple Computer has announced a significant revision to its Xserve line of high-end rackmount server and data-processing computers. Like previous Xserves, the new units feature mammoth memory and storage capacities, multiple high-speed networking interfaces, and lightning-quick internal architecture. These are machines made for high-end scientific computation, video rendering, or mammoth Internet server applications. And, like Apple’s recent iMac, Mac mini, and MacBook Pro offerings, the new Xserves no longer feature PowerPC processors. The difference is that rather than being built around Intel Core Solo or Core Duo processors, the new Xserves feature up to two dual-core AMD Opteron processors running at speeds up to 2.8 GHz. And Apple says they’ll be available at the end of the month at startlingly low prices.

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Spec It Out — The technical specifications for the new Xserve AMDs make for heady reading – and the units will be available in three primary configurations which can be further customized – so just bear with me a bit.

At the core, the Xserve AMD units will feature either one or two dual-core AMD Opteron processors; depending on the configuration and clock speed, the Opteron CPUs can be model 275, 280, or 285 SEs, and each core will have 1 MB of processor cache. The servers ship with a minimum of 1 GB of 400 MHz (128bit+ECC) memory, with support for up to 16 GB of onboard RAM. Storage options come via four independent Serial ATA drive bays with removable Apple Drive Modules and offer up to 2 terabytes of storage; the system also sports a slot-loading DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, with an optional DVD-R SuperDrive available. For expansion, the system offers two low-profile 64-bit PCI-X expansion slots (one at 100 MHz, one at 133 MHz), two FireWire 800 ports, one FireWire 400 port, two USB 2.0 ports, and one DB-9 (RS-232) serial port. Like previous Xserve models, the Xserve AMDs sport two independent gigabit Ethernet interfaces; additional gigabit Ethernet can be added via PCI-X expansion cards.

Xserve AMD users can connect to an Xserve RAID drive using an optional PCI-X Fibre Channel card, enabling 2 GB/second access to as much as 7 terabytes of additional storage. Additional PCI-X expansion cards (available separately) enable access to hardware RAID arrays, SCSI devices, and VGA monitors. As rackmount server units, Xserve AMDs don’t ship with any built-in video output. However, in a move new to Apple’s Xserve line, the Xserve AMDs feature dual redundant hot-swappable power supplies.


Three basic Xserve AMD configurations will be available: a single processor Xserve AMD with a dual-core 2.2 GHz Opteron processor, 1 GB of RAM, and one 400 GB Apple Drive module; a high-speed Xserve AMD with two 2.8 GHz dual-core Opteron processors; and a slightly stripped-down cluster node Xserve AMD with two 2.8 GHz dual-core AMD processors, but only 512 MB of RAM, 240 GB of storage, and a 10-client edition of Mac OS X Tiger Server. Other Xserve AMD units will ship with unlimited versions of Tiger Server.

And here’s the kicker: where pricing for Apple’s previous PowerPC-based G5 systems started at $3,000, the base configuration of the Xserve AMD starts at just $1,800, with the two-processor dual-core Opteron configuration starting at $2,600. Of course, by the time one adds additional memory, storage capacity, and hosting costs into the equations, the Xserve AMDs are still costly systems, but, in the world of rack-mount servers, Apple has suddenly become very competitive.

Not Fade Away… Yet — Unlike Apple’s iMac and Mac mini transitions, Apple has no immediate plans to do away with the PowerPC-based editions of its Xserves: both Xserve editions will remain for sale from Apple for the immediate future. Apple spokesperson Said Al Atztru noted that many existing Xserve users have built significant applications and supercomputing clusters using Apple’s Xserves, and the company has no intention of leaving them twisting in the wind. “We understand that converting those applications to a new architecture is going to take a significant amount of time and resources, and, as we always have been with our Xserve customers, we’ll be there to assist those users through that transition as smoothly as possible.”


When queried about the decision to use AMD processors in the company’s high-end servers rather than Intel-based chips, Al Atztru was surprisingly forthcoming. “Apple announced it was transitioning the Macintosh line to Intel-based chips, and we’re doing just that. We don’t have any plans to put AMD processors in our consumer or professional Macintosh systems. That said – and I know it sounds pedantic – the Xserve is a special case product for specific purposes. It’s never said ‘Macintosh’ on the box. No one – or, at least, we hope no one – is going to buy an Xserve as a means to get their grandmother on the Internet. That’s not what they’re for. So, we don’t see any contradiction in making Xserves with AMD processors and saying we’re transitioning the Macintosh to Intel processors.”

Al Atztru continued, “From a technical perspective, AMD makes compelling processors for the server market. While I wouldn’t rule out future Intel-based Xserve systems, since Intel’s Core Solo and Core Duo processors have wonderful performance-to-watt ratios, those advances haven’t yet fully translated to Intel’s line of processors for server systems. Going with AMD’s processors lets us achieve approximately 50 percent greater performance than Intel’s Xeon processors while consuming about one-third the power.”

Time will tell. Apple Xserve AMDs are scheduled to be available by the end of April; the company will start taking pre-orders later this week.

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