Apple Xserve review

Price when reviewed

Just when you thought some things were sacred, Dell goes all AMD on us and Apple jumps into bed with Intel. The former wasn’t really a surprise, but the Xserve servers moving from PowerPC to Xeon caught out more than a few. Even more remarkable is the character assassination job Apple has done on its own Xserve G5 platform, stating that the new Xeon-equipped systems are up to five times faster. Well, now that we have our hands on the new Xserve, we take a closer look to see why you’d want an Apple in your rack.

Apple Xserve review

You can’t deny Apple has some of the best designers around, as externally the Xserve is a beautifully built system. Even though the design hasn’t changed from that of its predecessor, this is still one of the most solid 1U rack servers we’ve had in the lab. Status LEDs are in abundance, with indicators for general system health and the network, while each drive carrier has it own status and activity lights. Even smarter are the dual banks of eight LEDs that correspond to the processors, with four dedicated to each Xeon core to show what it’s up to. However, how these would handle Intel’s latest quad-core Xeons is anyone’s guess.

Despite its terrific design, the server only has room for three hard disks across the front panel, and an Allen key at the front allows these and the lid to be locked in position. Although the price of the review system includes a trio of 750GB Seagate Barracuda ES drives, you’re stuck if you want hardware-managed RAID – it isn’t an option because the embedded SAS controller doesn’t have any RAID functions. Instead, what Apple expects you to do is protect internal storage using software-managed arrays from within Mac OS X Server. RAID is only available to external arrays connected to the server via an expansion card or by attaching Apple’s equally well-constructed Xserve RAID array to a dual-port 2Gb/sec Fibre Channel card, one of which was supplied in the server.

Using a SAS controller means the server can handle both SAS and SATA hard disks, and although Apple makes a big deal about this capability, it’s nothing new. It also reckons the top 2.25TB it can deliver is industry-leading – we don’t agree. Take a look at any of the 1U rack servers we’ve reviewed over the past six months and you’ll see many of them supporting SAS and SATA, and are capable of even greater capacities.

Internally, the Xserve looks good, although Apple hasn’t adhered to the same tool-free philosophy as its competition. Cooling is handled by a bank of seven fans behind the drive bays, and these are individually controlled by dedicated microprocessors. However, none are hot-swappable, the entire assembly needs to be unscrewed on each side to be removed and, when we attempted this, one mounting screw jammed. Further back, you have the pair of processors mounted by large, passive heatsinks, and the plastic shroud covering them also has to be unscrewed for removal. Expansion options extend to a pair of riser cards offering PCI Express 8x slots. One was occupied by the Fibre Channel card for connecting the Xserve RAID array and either can be swapped out for PCI-X riser versions; however, once again, you need to get handy with a screwdriver.

Lights-out management features get a boost, as Apple has now embedded an IPMI 2 controller on the motherboard. Providing power is applied, the server can be accessed and controlled by compliant management software. The bundled Server Monitor application provides a tidy interface, allowing you to keep an eye on multiple Xserve systems. It gathers information from the motherboard sensors and the IPMI controller, and presents this as a summary of colour-coded icons providing at-a-glance fault identification. Tabbed folders below the graphical display provide a system summary and quick access to details on disk drives, memory, CPU utilisation, power, memory and a range of system temperatures.

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