Eight-core Xserve shows Apple's server strength

Its main purpose is use with other Apple products, says Tom Yager

Apple rarely lets any product sit still for long, so when something in its lineup goes untouched for a while, it prompts speculation about Apple's commitment to it. Consider Xserve. I do, and sometimes I feel like I'm the only one who does. Apple's Xserve went Intel with the rest of the Mac line, but instead of keeping pace with x86 rack server competitors and keeping up with Intel's latest silicon like its Mac client kin, Xserve hung back. It's been a two socket, four-core server in an eight-core world. Ever since the Intel transition, Apple's been quiet on the marketing front for Xserve, too. It looked like Apple might have relegated its server to the back burner, but that didn't jibe with the proud noise that Apple has made over OS X Server Leopard, its first true Unix server OS. A shiny new OS on server hardware that had lost pace with the market? Perhaps Apple was quietly thinking what I've been quietly advising curious buyers to do: Use Mac Pro as a server instead.

I never worried that Apple would let Xserve languish. It is a product that, if no one else bought it, Apple would produce for itself. I see Xserve as being engineered to track the requirements of the datacentres serving iTunes, .Mac, the Apple online store, Apple Developer Connection, and the rest of Apple's vast, worldwide portfolio of internet properties. Squeezing as many cores and DIMM sockets as possible into one rack unit isn't a priority when you're scaling out for fine-grained load balancing and minimal response time to requests from users.

That Xserve Xeon was designed by Apple, for Apple, is merely partially informed speculation, but it gives me a quick answer to the "Is Apple serious about the enterprise?" question. "Yes," I answer. "Its own."

Even if Apple's secret internal datacentre requirements haven't evolved, market requirements and public perception have. Apple doesn't just want to be a passenger on the big green bus. Apple wants to drive it, and Xserve's lagging performance per watt forced Apple to reply to the green question by asserting the greenness of all Macs. Xserve, you see, is not a Mac, and is therefore exempt. Not to me, and now, not to Apple.

Apple has delivered the first substantially new Xserve since its last PowerPC G5 server. I haven't touched Xserve yet, but on paper, Xserve puts Apple back in the lead relative to two-socket, x86 rack servers in its price class. With the new Xserve, latency and bandwidth are finally balanced with compute performance. Xserve uses Intel's Harpertown, the two-socket Xeon edition of Intel's Penryn 45 nanometer quad-core Core 2 platform. Harpertown's got 12 megabytes of shared Level 2 cache per socket, a 1600MHz front-side bus, PCI-Express 2.0, 800MHz DDR2 memory, and is, in all regards, a thoroughly modern server. This, plus the availability of an add-in hardware RAID controller with battery-protected cache (which I have tested and found to be astonishing), makes Harpertown Xserve a peer among the best 1U rack servers.

Simply having an eight-core, Harpertown rack server isn't sufficient to differentiate Apple from the rest of the x86 server space. For those of us with high standards for the use of the term "server", Harpertown Xserve finally makes the grade. Like its Big Four counterparts Sun, HP and IBM, Apple has custom-designed hardware that supports a limited range of unique devices. That control gave Apple the freedom to custom-design an OS optimised for only the peripherals it sells. It works out of the box, and you can't knock it over. These are the advantages that keep HP-UX, AIX and the enterprise releases of Solaris in high demand even though Linux and Windows have covered the earth. Now that Apple has a server worthy of its Unix server OS, questions about Apple's stance on the enterprise can be considered answered.

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