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A little more than a year ago, I sat in San Francisco’s Moscone West convention hall as Steve Jobs pulled the wraps off the Power Mac G5 desktop, and I tried to figure out how Apple’s engineers would shoehorn two small furnaces into the Xserve’s 1U chassis. Walking out of the building, a colleague from InfoWorld and I shook our heads and said that it couldn’t be done, that they were going to have to use a 2U box. Now the Xserve G5 has proved us wrong, and we couldn’t be happier.
Dual Design Goals
Apple’s design team pulled off the impossible by throwing ten heat sensors and an intelligent fan subsystem into the Xserve case, and by using newly available 90-nanometer PowerPC G5 CPUs from IBM. Apple has also radically changed the server’s front panel, reducing the number of drive bays from four to three.
Compared with its predecessors, the Xserve G5 has a striking appearance; the twin air scoops that keep the two 2GHz G5 processors from melting down make sure of that. And inside, the polished and embossed CPU heat sinks are decorative and functional.
Speed and RAID
Some other tweaks to the Xserve G5 compensate for the shortcomings of the earlier models; for example, two Gigabit Ethernet interfaces are built into the server, and independent frontside buses running at 1GHz rapidly sling data in and out of the Xserve’s processors. Although a drive bay had to be sacrificed to make room for the cooling system’s intakes, the Xserve’s storage capacity is now greater than that of the G4 models, thanks to new, 250GB Serial ATA drives. The new drive modules aren’t interchangeable with those found in the G4 Xserves and the first-generation Xserve RAID, but they will work in the new RAID box (see our review on this page). The new Xserve can also hold 8GB of error-correcting memory, and it can slosh more than 6GB of data through RAM in one second.
The Xserve’s remaining major flaw will soon be rectified: As we went to press, Apple shipped an add-on card that provides hardware RAID support for the Xserve family, which is available through the Apple Store. Although you can use Mac OS X’s Disk Utility to set up a software-based RAID, a hardware RAID is faster. More importantly, the new card makes the Xserve more competitive with Intel-based servers, where that feature has been standard—often built-in—for years.
The Icing on Top
The Xserve remains the most easily managed server on the market. Much of that is a feature of the OS; nevertheless, the tight, secure integration of the Xserve management application (updated to version 10.3.4 in June), the hardware, and the OS makes this server very versatile. The new suite is mostly a series of bug fixes and interface tweaks, but, oddly enough, it also includes an update to QuickTime Broadcaster.
Next year’s release of OS X 10.4, or Tiger, should bring more enhancements to the Xserve management tools. I hope to see a somewhat tighter integration of the utilities, and I would especially appreciate having the RAID-related utilities be as accessible from within the tools as the other management pieces are. Although Panther Server is billed as optimized for the G5 CPU, I suspect that Apple’s developers still have some tricks up their sleeves.
An unlimited-client license for Mac OS X Server remains part of the Xserve package unless you buy the Cluster Node configuration—which features a 10-client license, no CD drive, and only one drive bay. Single- and dual-processor configurations of the Xserve G5 cost $2,999 and $3,999, respectively, and build-to-order options are available.
Although Apple’s Xserve technology is unquestionably cutting-edge—especially the dedicated high-speed frontside processor buses and the point-to-point system controller—some reports say that the server’s performance leaves much to be desired. Between Apple’s performance claims and some of our unpublished results, I don’t know what to believe—which is why I put very little stock in benchmarking this type of server. But from my testing perspective, the Xserve feels fast enough. While it may not shine in every computing scenario, the Xserve is well suited to the role of either a general-purpose server or a member of a computing cluster.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Apple took a pretty good server, the G4 Xserve (; September 2003), and made it even better. Although some problems remain, the Xserve G5 kicks butt effortlessly and looks good doing it. Inside the Xserve G5